OWINGS MILLS – Under siege for the past few weeks, Joe Flacco has been taking a beating while the pocket keeps collapsing around him.
And strong pass rushes and clever coverage schemes have caused some uncharacteristic reactions from the Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback.
He looks uncomfortable and out of sync as he tries to locate his receivers downfield.
Nowadays, his mechanics are no longer textbook.
And his accuracy and production have suffered whenever defensive coordinators come up with a strategy to take away his two favorite targets: wide receiver Derrick Mason and running back Ray Rice.
All of the above was on display during the Ravens’ 21-13 victory over the Oakland Raiders where a strong running game spearheaded by Willis McGahee and a stout defense meant that it was fine for Flacco to manage the game and not throw any touchdowns. He registered a season-low for completions with 11 and passing yards with 102 while not committing a turnover.
The playoffs, which begin Sunday against the AFC East champion New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium, could be a different story.
The Ravens will need Flacco, who has battled ankle, hip and shoulder injuries this season, to keep the Patriots’ defense honest.
Against the Raiders, only three of his completions were for longer than seven yards.
“I think a lot of it has to do with what they were doing defensively, and obviously the pressure got to us a couple times,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We missed a couple of things we probably could have hit that would have made a huge difference. If we’d have found a couple open guys behind some of those blitzes, like we’re capable of doing, that would have made a big difference.
“It wasn’t as good of a passing performance as we’d like to see, but like we always say, every game stands on its own. Every week is a different drama, and I thought our offense did what they had to do to win that game.”
The Patriots don’t have a shutdown cornerback like Raiders Pro Bowl selection Nmandi Asomugha, who took Mason out of the game with just one reception for 23 yards.
And the Raiders did a solid job of bottling up Rice, tackling him quickly on his four receptions to limit him to 19 yards.
“These guys are a big, tough, physical defense,” said Flacco, who was sacked four times. “They played tough and you have to be impressed with their performance.”
In terms of body language, Flacco hasn’t appeared as confident as usual over the past two games.
He has been sacked eight times during the past two weeks and has completed just 24 of 44 throws for 268 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
These two weeks followed his career-high four touchdown performance during a 31-7 win over the Chicago Bears.
At times, Flacco seems to be holding onto the football too long instead of getting rid of it and regrouping or just taking the sack.
“Yeah, there are times we’d like the ball out quicker,” Harbaugh said. “And I’m sure there are times that Joe didn’t see opportunities to make throws or decided, ‘You know what? In this game right here, I’m not going to take a chance on this throw. I’m going to make sure that it’s there.’
“Maybe it’s a sack even, but it’s not a turnover. He might have played a little conservative on some of those throws. Other times, guys were covered. Joe did a good job in the sense of understanding the situation we were in, in the football game, and making sure that we protected the football.”
Escaping the pocket doesn’t seem to be an option for Flacco, who’s a good scrambler when he has his full mobility.
He has been sacked 36 times, the sixth-highest total in the NFL. That includes 10 sacks in the past three games, so the pounding may be taking its toll.
Against Oakland, he didn’t throw a touchdown for the first time in six weeks.
Last year, Flacco became the first rookie quarterback to win two playoff games as he helped lead the Ravens to the AFC championship game.
Now, he heads into the postseason for the second time with a lot more experience while dueling with the likes of Tom Brady, Carson Palmer, Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers in the AFC.
The only quarterback Flacco has more experience than in the AFC is New York Jets rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez.
“The more you experience it, the better you can prepare yourself for it, but the most important thing is that we feel that we have a good team,” Flacco said. “We think it’s going to be tough to beat us, and we’re looking forward to going into it taking it one game at a time. We have a good team and we think it’s going to be tough to beat us come playoff time.”
During the Ravens’ first meeting with the Patriots on Oct. 4, they lost 27-21 with Flacco uncorking a season-high 47 passes.
He completed 27 of them for 264 yards, two touchdowns and one interception and was only sacked twice despite Jared Gaither being knocked out of the game with a neck injury and rookie Michael Oher having to shift over from right tackle.
Now, the Ravens will need Flacco to recapture his early-season form as they head back to Foxborough, Mass., for what shapes up as an intriguing rematch.
“You know we were up there earlier this year, and we feel like we should have gotten one,” Flacco said. “It’s our chance to go up there and try to get it back and prove to everybody and prove to ourselves that we can beat these guys. New England is where it starts.”
NOTES: During an NBC conference call, former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison predicted a New England win. Here’s his rationale: “The Patriots are 8-0 at home and they have a lot of veteran players on this team, a veteran coaching staff and this is a team that’s been flying under the radar. The Patriots have struggled, playing on the road. They’re perfect at home, but [coach Bill Belichick] is going to use this strangeness of them getting their butts kicked on the road, as well as not playing particularly well defensively to turn that all around into a positive. They’ve always responded to Belichick and that makes me believe that they’re going to beat the Baltimore Ravens." … The Seattle Seahawks have reportedly asked for permission to interview Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta for their vacant general manager position. … Harbaugh praised undrafted rookie linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble against the Raiders. “You get a chance to go out there and you play well and you earn more responsibility, and he’s done well with that,” Harbaugh said. “There are so many areas where he can get better and he will get better. The difference in the game was turnovers, and he made the plays. He gets a game ball. For a rookie to come in and do that, it’s quite an achievement.” … The Ravens led the NFL in penalty yardage, but cut back against the Raiders to five flags for 37 yards. Harbaugh took issue with the suggestion that his team had to sacrifice aggressiveness to commit less infractions. “You can’t afford to dial back the intensity and have a chance to win," he said. "It’s making better decisions in some critical moments of decision making. Right there, at the moment of truth, you’ve got to make a choice to block a guy in the back or not. Is he out of bounds or is he inbounds? We did a good job of that. And it’s technique a lot of times in the back end. And sometimes, you’re going to play great technique and you’re going to get called anyway. That’ll be our challenge up there in New England, too. This is an ongoing thing. We’re going to need to play a very smart, a very physical, a well-executed football game to have a chance to win this football game."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.