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Over the last couple of weeks, the Ravens have been imitating a former playoff team from the 2003 season and no it is not another version of the Baltimore Ravens team that won the AFC North that season. Rather, the Ravens have had the look of the Tennessee Titans teams that Steve McNair led to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2002 and 2003.
Those McNair led teams aired the ball out and played stingy defense, especially against the run.
The formula that the Titans used on offense was to spread the field using three, four and five receiver alignments, which allowed McNair to make plays as a passer. McNair responded by putting together an MVP campaign during the 2003 season.
In 2002, McNair passed for close to 3,400 yards and completed nearly 62% of his attempts. The key stat to look at is McNairâ€™s attempts for that year, which were 492. He threw the ball nearly 100 more times than he did in 1999 and 2000, when Tennessee was a more balanced offensive outfit.
In fact, the Titans staff did not design the offense around McNair and his abilities as a prolific passer. The offense went through tailback Eddie George for quite some time. He was the staple of a hard-nosed, physical rush attack which Tennessee leaned on to win close games. When George started showing signs of wear and tear after taking so many hits through his years as a power back, and his effectiveness was nearly gone, the Titans had no choice but to air the ball out and become a pass first team.
The same type of situation is occurring in Baltimore.
Although it is still early in the season, and the Ravens have enough time to resuscitate a fading ground attack, it appears that the team has discovered their strength as an offense, which is to attack through the air.
The pieces are in place. In Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams, Baltimore finally has a dependable corps of receivers which can be counted on to hold onto the ball and make clutch catches. All three receivers possess great hands and body control. In addition, the three complement each other well. While Mason is the consummate possession receiver, Clayton and Williams provide a vertical presence. Williams in particular appears to have the ability to gain separation against man-to-man coverage.
Since Williams has become more involved in the offense, the Ravens have expanded their sets, using more spread formations. With Williams on the field, Baltimore is a lot less predictable with its passing sets. When the secondary has keyed in on Mason and Clayton, Williams has burned nickel and dime corners with consistency.
Alongside what appears to be an emerging trio at the receiver spot is the dependable tight-end duo of Todd Heap and Daniel Wilcox. Heap is regaining his form as perhaps the best pass-catching tight-end in the game after being dormant during the first quarter of the season. The coaches have made it a point to get him the ball at least four or five times a game.
Wilcox hasnâ€™t made many plays in the passing game, but his presence allows the Ravens to be versatile out of their two-tight end passing formations. He can line up almost anywhere, even as a receiver flanked out wide.
The biggest key to Baltimoreâ€™s passing success has been the play of the offensive line. McNair has been sacked just two times in the past three games; one of those sacks was a result of McNair stepping out of the end zone against Tennessee this past Sunday when the Ravens were backed up on their own side of the field.
Although the line was built for being physical and opening up holes in the running game, it has adjusted nicely to picking up blitzes and dropping back on its heels to stalemate pass rushers in protection situations. The unit has looked cohesive and coordinated.
Even though there have been times when McNair has bailed out his blockers by breaking away from a sure sack or pressure, there have been other instances when the line bailed him out by providing him with another second so he can complete a pass to his fourth or fifth read. In addition, the offensive line has gotten great help from the backs and tight-ends when they stay in to help in blitz pick-up situations.
What makes the transformation of the offense even more stunning is how quickly head coach Brian Billick has adapted his play-calling to the make-up of this unit.
Clearly, the ground game has faltered, but Billick could have easily stayed true to his game plan and kept pounding away with Jamal Lewis against Tennessee.
Obviously, the circumstance of being down by a large deficit against the Titans forced his hand to pass the ball more. But he didnâ€™t waste much time letting McNair air it out. In fact, the strategy from the beginning appeared to be to throw the ball, as Baltimore opened up with eight pass attempts out of its first 12 offensive plays.
This transformation has been more of a gradual metamorphosis as opposed to a drastic alteration; the same could be said of what McNairâ€™s old team went through when he was the signal caller, and he had to bail out a struggling Eddie George who was but a shell of his former self.
Is McNair up to the task of bailing out another star back that seems to have flamed out in Jamal Lewis?
One would hope that the ground game can get going again so the offense is not placed on McNairâ€™s shoulders. But at this point in time, it appears that Baltimore is giving McNair the chance to control things through the air once again.