OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Much of the discussion about the Ravens offense during the bye week has focused on the deep ball and the pending return of running back Danny Woodhead.
But even in a losing effort, Sunday’s game in Tennessee offered hope for the biggest key in finding more production in the passing attack. In the final three quarters of the 23-20 defeat to the Titans, Joe Flacco completed eight of nine targets to veteran wide receiver Jeremy Maclin for 98 yards.
Four of those nine attempts traveled more than 10 yards through the air — all of them completions — and seven were to the middle of the field. Six of the eight receptions went for first downs in what amounted to Maclin’s best game as a Raven despite the lack of a touchdown catch.
It’s apparent that the short passing has been excessive and largely unproductive without a dynamic running back or tight end to pick up yards after the catch this season. And while Baltimore certainly needs to attempt — and connect on — a few more deep shots to Mike Wallace, those are always going to be lower-percentage throws when an offense lacks a transcendent talent such as Julio Jones.
The 10-to-20-yard range is the meat and potatoes for most effective passing games.
“It’s the chunk area, the intermediate area, especially inside,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “Those are areas we need to make plays, and we had a few of those with Maclin [in Week 9]. They were in two-man-type coverages, and Jeremy did a nice job of getting open. Joe stepped up and made a couple nice throws there.
“Those are the kind of chunk plays that make the difference and move the chains.”
Intermediate throws just haven’t been there for the Ravens. According to ESPN’s passing splits, only 12.7 percent of Flacco’s attempts this season have traveled 11 to 20 yards downfield, an overwhelming career low for the 10th-year quarterback.
That’s way down from the 15.6 percent of his attempts traveling that range of distance last season, his previous career worst. For context, Flacco was entrusted as a rookie in a run-heavy offense in 2008 to attempt passes 11 to 20 yards through the air 23.1 percent of the time. Over most of his career, 17 to 21 percent of Flacco’s attempts traveled to that range.
Making matters worse, he’s completed only 14 of his 37 throws (37.8 percent) 11 to 20 yards through the air for two touchdowns, five interceptions, and a meager 5.97 yards per attempt. Over most of his career, he hovered in the 45-to-55-percent completion range for eight to nine yards per attempt.
Couple that with the reality of Flacco completing only five of his 17 attempts traveling more than 20 yards in the air — far too few deep shots in nine games — and it’s no surprise that moving the ball has been so difficult for this passing attack. Any offense constantly needing all three downs to move the chains is going to struggle.
“It seems that all of [our scoring drives] are just long ones, and it is tough to have a lot of those long drives and do that consistently,” Flacco said. “You have to have some of those quick strikes in you, so you do not have to convert four or five third downs every single drive in order to score a touchdown.”
Of course, there are many variables at work beyond the performance — and health — of Flacco himself. Injuries on the offensive line, suspect play-calling, and the lack of dynamic talent at the skill positions have all been major obstacles. The return of Woodhead should provide a bump in production on short passes, but that’s assuming the 32-year-old can stay on the field as he’s missed 35 games over the last four seasons.
The biggest key to improving the passing game down the stretch will be Maclin, who missed two games with a shoulder injury last month and was unable to build an on-field rapport with his new quarterback over the summer as Flacco was sidelined with a back issue. General manager Ozzie Newsome signed Maclin in mid-June to produce in the intermediate portion of the field, but he’s registered just 27 catches for 310 yards with almost half of that yardage coming over the last two games.
The Ravens clearly want to lean on their eighth-ranked rushing attack as much as they can, but offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and Flacco building on what they’ve accomplished with Maclin over the last two weeks is a must for this offense to become more functional.
Scheming ways to get him open beyond the chains and targeting him more frequently would help create more space underneath for the likes of Woodhead and tight end Benjamin Watson and more opportunities for deep shots to Wallace with a better chance of succeeding. Without production in the intermediate middle portion of the field, cornerbacks and linebackers can clamp down on underneath routes while allowing opponents to stay in two-high-safety looks that take away the deep passing game. That’s happened too often over the first nine games of the season.
Despite Sunday’s defeat to the Titans, the Ravens can only hope what they uncovered with Maclin was a sign of better things to come for the league’s worst passing attack. Big plays down the field and more yards after the catch on short throws underneath are certainly parts of the equation, but the Ravens need to create as many opportunities as they can for their best pass-catcher.
If this offense is going to improve enough to give the Ravens a real chance to make the playoffs down the stretch, Maclin needs to become the go-to guy in a way not different from how Flacco leaned on Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Smith at different points in his career. This passing game desperately needs to find that middle ground between underneath throws and deep shots.
“I said it all along: Jeremy is a good player, and he makes it easy,” Flacco said. “But the more time you get with him, the better and better it is.”