Joe Flacco has made the most improvement of his three-year career during 2010. Decision-making and accuracy have both improved, as has his willingness to take chances to make big plays. There is still, however, an area that Flacco and the Ravens can improve in significantly: throwing the ball on first down.
During the Week 13 matchup with the Steelers, Flacco completed just 3 of 9 passes on first down on a night when neither team mounted much of a rushing attack (the Ravens averaged just 2.2 yards per carry in that game). It would appear that the Ravens’ first down passing woes vs. the Steelers would be related to their ineffectiveness in the run game, but a closer look reveals similar first down passing problems were experienced vs. the Saints.
Despite averaging 5.3 yards per carry vs. New Orleans, Flacco managed to complete only 2 of 5 passes on first down. I believe for this Ravens’ team to win deep into the playoffs, Flacco must be put in position to make big first down, play action plays.
QUICK TAKE ON 1st DOWN PASSES VS. THE SAINTS
2nd Qtr – 5:12 -1st & 10 – NO 37
The Ravens came out here in a run-heavy set, with WR Anquan Boldin (#81) aligned as a second offset FB in the backfield. He motioned across the formation, likely in an attempt to widen a box defender for the Saints. Instead, not a single Saint defender left the box, and the ball was snapped with eight New Orleans defenders within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage. Saints’ CB Tracy Porter (#22) did follow Boldin’s motion and “bumped” or widened fellow DB Leigh Torrence (#24) out with Boldin, and both were in on the pursuit and tackle on a play that gained 1 yard.
Why It Didn’t Work – Although reasonable to attempt to isolate one of your best athletes at the edge of the Offensive formation, the Ravens’ scheme to get Boldin the ball here was somewhat ill-conceived. At the snap, Baltimore’s entire Offensive Line took zone steps to their right, and the Ravens’ backfield of Rice and McClain also stepped to their right – effectively jump-starting Defensive pursuit to the already-motioning Boldin. When trying to isolate, it’s important not to bring too many people to the party, and the Ravens’ did just that here.
Worth noting here … veteran WR Derrick Mason (#85) completely missed an attempted stalk block play-side.
3rd Qtr – 11:32 – 1st & 10 – BAL 8
The Ravens aligned in a two TE set with both Dennis Pitta (#88) and Ed Dickson (#83) to the Offensive right. Joe Flacco sprinted right, with Heap releasing straight up the field (Dickson stayed in to help in pass protection) and #1 receiver Boldin running a quick out route.
Why It Didn’t Work – Flacco had little in the way of options here. Perhaps more significantly, there was not much for the Ravens’ Quarterback to read: With a New Orleans defender aligned at Safety depth and easily able to cover Pitta, Flacco’s only real alternative was Boldin, who was easily covered by a dedicated flat defender – DB Roman Harper (#41). Simply put: No Saints’ defender was put in a bind or conflict, either by play action or route design.
3rd Qtr – 6:16 – 1st & 15 – BAL 21
Again aligning in a two Wide Receiver formation, with an offset-I backfield, the Ravens’ decided to work a play action/screen combination on first down. After initially faking a handoff left to Ray Rice (#27), Flacco turned his attention to FB Le’Ron McClain (#33) as he moved toward the right flat, only to turn and throw to Rice on the left side of the formation at the line of scrimmage.
Why It Worked – Cam Cameron showed some ingenuity on this play, in that Flacco essentially faked run action, followed by pass action, followed by a throw to the opposite side of the pass fake. Rice and Ravens’ LG Ben Grubbs (#66) waited patiently for New Orleans’ LB-depth defenders to drop with Flacco’s pass fake to McClain before releasing (Grubbs to block and Rice catch and run) for a big gain. The Ravens found a way to create lanes in a passing situation on first down.
WHERE THE RAVENS MUST IMPROVE
The Baltimore Ravens in 2010 is a team that despite fielding a solid defense, they are capable of giving up 24 points or more vs. a good offensive unit. They are also a team that very often plays close games, win or lose. That said, victories in January must involve a willingness on Baltimore’s part to use play action passing and coverage-attacking route combinations on first down.