OWINGS MILLS — The Baltimore Ravens built their reputation through a tradition of bone-breaking hits, vicious blitzes and the brute will of their intimidating defense, winning their lone championship behind an elite unit spearheaded by middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
A decade later, the Ravens are banking on a dramatic transformation of their offense to provide a major boost to their Super Bowl prospects.
It’s a new day in Baltimore as the Ravens hope they’ve manufactured a balanced football team where the offense is now an equal partner to their more celebrated defensive colleagues.
Between the blockbuster trade for wide receiver Anquan Boldin this offseason, signing wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and retaining veteran Derrick Mason, drafting quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice and offensive tackle Michael Oher in recent years, everything has been geared toward creating a balanced, complete attack.
"Defenses, they’ll win you games, but I think to get over the hump you need offense," Flacco said. "They’ve won here in the past with a great defense. They won one Super Bowl, and we’re trying to win multiple. And you need a good offense. You need a good team in order to do that."
The Ravens’ construction efforts will be on display tonight at the Meadowlands in a season opener against the New York Jets, which are headlined by one of the most disruptive, destructive defenses in the league.
This encounter should offer an immediate look at just how much the Ravens have progressed as they square off with the top-ranked defense in the league from last season.
"With the maturation of Flacco and the emergence of Ray Rice and bringing in Houshmandzadeh, Mason’s always going to be solid, bringing in Anquan Boldin, they got everything that they always wished for," said Jets linebacker Bart Scott, a former Ravens standout. "They always wanted to try and get some firepower to the offensive side. I think the team is making the shift from a defense-led team to more of a balance-led team."
Will the Ravens be befuddled by the presence of defensive aces like cornerback Darrelle Revis, nose guard Kris Jenkins and linebackers David Harris and Scott?
Are they truly different and better equipped for this sort of challenge?
Well, Jets coach Rex Ryan seems to think so.
The brash former Baltimore defensive coordinator was asked whether the Ravens’ current offense would have earned him a few more Super Bowl rings if that personnel had been in place when he was here.
"I’d rather not think about it to be honest with you, because that offense is pretty darn good right now," Ryan said.
The New Orleans Saints claimed the Vince Lombardi trophy with quarterback Drew Brees engineering the top offense in the league.
Now, the Ravens have designs on having an offense that ranks in the top five overall.
They’re counting on the players growing more comfortable in offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s system
It’s his third year in Baltimore. Based on his track record, that could be a meaningful benchmark.
In his third year with the San Diego Chargers, the offense jumped from 16th to third. And the Redskins jumped from 18th to eighth under Cameron’s direction in his third season in Washington.
"Before Cam got here and a lot of other players got here, we were kind of at the bottom half of the league," Mason said. "Slowly but surely we started to inch our way up to being one of the best offenses in the NFL. If we just continue on that road, I think we will become not just the best offense, but the winningest offense in the NFL.
"What we want to do is make sure that if we do get the numbers that we’re winning in the process. If history continues to repeat itself, and where Cam has been for at least three years, it shows that that the third or fourth year the offense usually ranks within the top two or three in the league."
As important as Rice’s all-purpose skills are to the Ravens’ offense, ultimately they’ll probably only go as far as Flacco takes them.
Last season, he passed for 3,613 yards, 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions as the Ravens reached the AFC divisional playoffs. They had the ninth-ranked scoring offense with a 24.4 average per contest.
During their past 18 regular-season victories, Flacco threw 25 touchdowns with three interceptions for a 104.9 quarterback rating.
The Ravens have only lost once in 16 games when Flacco produces at least a 95.0 rating and are undefeated in eight games when he produces a 105.9 rating or better.
Only Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Dan Marino and Bernie Kosar have quarterbacked their team into the postseason in each of their first two NFL seasons.
"Probably out of all the quarterbacks I’ve played with, he has the most complete package out of them all," said Boldin, a three-time Pro Bowl selection who previously caught passes from Kurt Warner. "He’s a smart guy. He has a gun. He can make any throw on the field, but his willingness to learn is what separates him from a lot of young guys. .. I think he has earned the trust of the coaches, so they’re giving him a little more leeway."
With greater freedom for Flacco, also comes superior targets than past editions of the offense.
Flacco has so many more choices than he did even a year ago where he was largely relegated to either hitting Mason along the sideline or dumping the football off on screens and check downs to Rice as he led the team with 78 receptions.
"Right now, we’re a complete offense, and we’re just looking forward to executing," Rice said. "Whether that’s me getting less catches, then all right, that’s fine. I’d rather take less yards, less catches, less stats and we’re winning games, rather than have the stats and we fall short."
Although Flacco’s targets all run similar patterns, it’s a skilled group.
Boldin has caught 586 career passes for 7,520 yards and 44 touchdowns and is the fastest to reach 500 catches in NFL history.
Mason is a two-time Pro Bowl selection who ranks third behind Tony Gonzalez and Hines Ward with 816 receptions since 2000. For the past 10 seasons, he’s caught at least 60 passes for the longest active streak in the NFL.
Over the past four years, only Wes Welker and Andre Johnson have caught more passes than Houshmandzadeh’s 373 catches.
Plus, the Ravens are bolstered by healthy tight end Todd Heap. The two-time Pro Bowl selection is the franchise’s all-time leader in catches (427) and touchdowns (36).
Mason dismissed a suggestion that there won’t be enough touches to keep everyone happy.
"No, it’s not like this is the first time it’s been done in history," Mason said. "You look at the Arizona Cardinals, the Indianapolis Colts, the St. Louis Rams, look back to the Charger days, teams have done it. Three receivers have been able to coexist, so I don’t think there will be a problem.
"Obviously, in one game, one guy might have more balls than the other, but that’s a good problem to have because defenses can’t fix on one guy each and every week. To me, I think that’s a good problem to have."
For so long, the Ravens have tried to make it back to the Super Bowl with their old formula or a smash-mouth running game and a stout defense.
Now, they finally appear to be a complete team.
"I think John Harbaugh has it right and it fits 2010: Teams win championships," Cameron said. "I think that’s where it is today. Organizations have to figure out how to allocate their money, either to the offense or defense or balanced. I would say that teams win championships more than anything."