Despite the early projections, the Baltimore Ravens did not add a highly heralded, go-to wide receiver. The team was pegged as the front-runners for Anquan Boldin, and on the radar for other veterans such as T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Torry Holt. Moreover, rumors were high and rampant that the front office would nab a talented wideout through the 2009 NFL Draft. After all, a number of analysts forecasted this year’s class to be among the deepest in a long time.
Instead, the Ravens opted to make other alterations to the offense in hopes of improving the passing game.
Without the addition of a blue-chip target for quarterback Joe Flacco, can the Baltimore aerial attack be a more explosive outfit? Here are four reasons to believe that it will:
1. Using less blockers: A major part of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s renovation of the Baltimore offense began with an emphasis on improved pass protection. To keep his young quarterback clean, Cameron used an assortment of maximum protection packages. Invariably, the backs and tight ends were counted on to block instead of releasing into the flats. At the expense of having more targets to turn to, the rookie signal-caller had more time to survey the field and to let long-developing routes to fully develop. Although the scheme worked well in most games, as receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton were able to break open consistently, and the pass protection was much better, the lack of targets caught up with the offense in the postseason.
This season those max blockers will have to be involved in the passing game. The line will be counted on to handle its blocking assignments without help from backs and tight ends.
With the selection of offensive tackle Michael Oher and the return of guard/tackle Marshall Yanda, Cameron should have a deeper collection of linemen to work with. If Yanda and tackle Adam Terry are able to return to full health, Cameron could even tinker with using one of the offensive tackles as a No.2 tight end, exclusively to block and help out the front five.
If the front five is able to pick up the blitz in obvious passing situations without much help, the tight ends and backs will have greater effect in the passing game.
Specifically, the hope is that tight end Todd Heap will not have to stay in to help at the line as he did a year ago.
Cameron’s goal should be to deploy four pass catchers for Flacco to turn to in passing situations, in whatever combination, as opposed to the three, and the often used two-man routes that Flacco read a year ago.
2. A sprinkle of Rice: Along with Heap and newcomer tight end L.J. Smith, second-year back Ray Rice should be the main intermediate target. Rice made his mark in flashes a year ago. He was especially explosive in games against the Browns, Raiders and Dolphins, as he proved to have the ability to be a difference maker in open space. Rice has wiggle to shake defenders and the power to bull through tackle attempts when he has a full head of steam.
The former Rutgers Scarlett has the potential to be a versatile weapon. Cameron could feature him in the screen game, split him out wide or use him as a dump-off target for Flacco to turn to, to defeat the blitz. Either way, Rice should touch the ball at least five times a game. He would be a mismatch nightmare for a defensive coordinator, as he has the speed to run past most linebackers that attempt to cover him.
The Ravens missed Rice during the back end of their schedule. But if he is able to stay healthy, expect Cameron to use him heavily in the passing game.
3. The presence of Bigs: In basketball, the term “bigs” is used by analysts to describe post players. In football, the term “bigs” should refer to the wideouts and tight ends with size that can snag jump balls downfield.
The Ravens acquired “bigs” that they did not have on the roster a year ago.
The biggest addition will come from within. The return of fourth-year wideout Demetrius Williams from a ruptured Achilles tendon will be critical. With his return, the team regains a vertical threat and a legitimate third option in the passing game.
Since he was drafted out of the fourth-round in 2006, Williams has flashed the potential to be a No.1 wideout. He is a long, athletic receiver, with the ability to make acrobatic catches downfield. However, he has yet to put together a complete season due to injuries and inconsistency. This is his final chance.
Williams’ injury in 2008 came at inopportune time, considering that the offense began to open up under Flacco’s big arm. If he can manage to stay healthy, Williams could be Flacco’s go-to guy on vertical routes, considering that he has the extension and length to stretch for the ball, and he has the speed to run through overthrown passes. And with Williams’ added bulk — he added 20 pounds to his frame in the offseason – he could also make an impact as a runner after the catch.
Along with Williams, Kelley Washington and LJ Smith, from the tight end spot, have the size to post up against smaller defenders. Washington is 6-foot-3, 215 pounds; Smith is 6-foot-3, 258 pounds.
Moreover, both players have the skills to separate downfield.
Throughout his career, Smith has been dangerous in the middle of the field, down the seams. He is a second level target who finds the voids through the zone. Washington has adequate speed and the vision to locate the football.
Flacco will welcome the added size to the rotation. With bigger targets to turn to, Flacco will have greater throwing range, as the “bigs” has the size to catch passes that are not perfectly placed. On jump balls especially, they will be able to fight through double coverage and leap over smaller defensive backs.
With “bigs” to help, Flacco can take greater chances when he airs it out, which could lead to even more passes that cover 20 yards or more than the team produced a year ago – the Ravens had 40 such plays during the regular season and seven in the playoffs.
4. Continued development of Clayton: Despite being a nonfactor for the first 10 games of the season, Clayton became the consummate No.2 behind Mason and a playmaker for Flacco to turn to during the team’s postseason run. He arrived at the perfect time, as the passing game opened up considerably near the end. He ended finished with an impressive 695 yards of total receiving yards and 17.0 yards per catch.
Clayton displayed the skills that made him the organization’s top pick in 2005, including the ability to separate on vertical routes and to produce yards after the catch. Moreover, Clayton honed his hands and route-running – two aspects of his game that needed improvement. In fact, Clayton has now developed the same type of hard, suddenness coming in and out of his cuts as Mason has mastered throughout his illustrious career.
With Flacco as his quarterback, it appears that Clayton has arrived as a viable starting NFL receiver. He proved to be a reliable and clutch performer at the end of last season and he should continue to make big plays in 2009, furthering the great offensive improvement of the passing attack.