The Ravens fired their original offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, in the middle of the season, and the Ravens offense has experienced a significant boost in productivity this offseason as a result. Baltimore still uses more screen concepts and gives Flacco a bit more help with short crossing patterns.
However, their offense is still largely based on the premise of using Joe Flacco's big arm combined with Torrey Smith's speed and Anquan Boldin's strength to haul in deep passes.
Joe Flacco takes plenty of heat for being inconsistent as a passer, but that is almost by design of the offense. Flacco is asked to make more difficult passes than just about any other quarterback.
After the Ravens made adjustments to their offensive line personnel late in the regular season, their pass protection has improved vastly, giving the downfield plays time to develop.
The formula for the Ravens' success is rather simple: When Joe Flacco is able to connect on deep passes, the odds of the Ravens winning the game skyrocket, as evidenced by this table below (the numbers on top are in wins, while losses are underneath).
Before: Poor Mechanics
First, let's start with the bad: After a 9-2 start, the Ravens appeared to be headed for a quick postseason exit as injuries and inconsistent play from Joe Flacco wore on the team. Here is a play from their home meeting against the Steelers that exemplifies everything that was wrong with the Ravens at that point.
Here we see Michael Oher at left tackle, giving up significant pressure in a one-on-one situation against a simple bull rush. Flacco still has time to maneuver in the pocket to buy himself time, but instead, he makes an irresponsible throw into double coverage off his back foot, leading to an incompletion.
Notice how his elbow drops, causing the ball to hang in the air even longer, allowing Ryan Clark to get over in time. His feet are also not in line with where he is trying to throw the ball, which makes his throwing motion even more awkward.
If it weren't for Flacco's incredibly strong arm, this pass may be intercepted.
These are the types of plays that led to Cam Cameron's firing. Now, let's take a look at what Joe Flacco has done since the Ravens revamped their offense midseason.
Flacco In His Comfort Zone
Here is a play from the first quarter of the divisional round against the Broncos. The design of the play is very simple—Torrey Smith runs a skinny post against Broncos defense with one deep safety in a 2nd-and-10 situation. This is an ideal time for a "shot" play against a defense ready to sell out against the run.
The high safety moves to help in coverage against Dennis Pitta, leaving Torrey Smith alone in single coverage against Champ bailey. Bailey is abused by Smith's speed and has significant separation.
Thanks to quality pass protection, Flacco has plenty of time to let the play develop and step into his throw. He times the throw perfectly, releasing the ball as soon as Smith starts to get speed—this is evidence of throwing with anticipation, a trait all top quarterbacks possess.
Torrey Smith never has to break his stride, and the Ravens get an easy six points.
Notice the protection Flacco gets on this throw. Unlike the previous example, Flacco has a clear lane to throw in, with Bryant McKinnie holding up against Elvis Dumervil on his own and Von Miller stoned by Michael Oher. The protection is so good, Ray Rice cannot find anyone to block. Considering the quality of the Broncos' pass rush, this is very impressive work by the Ravens' front.
This is yet another example of just how dangerous Flacco is when given time to throw to an open receiver.
However, it is not just the deep passes where Flacco is starting to excel. His command of the offense and comfort in the pocket is more evident than ever before, as shown in this fourth quarter touchdown to Anquan Boldin.
Immediately, Flacco recognizes the single coverage on Boldin in the slot. The Patriots send an interior delayed blitz, but Flacco keeps his eyes up and throws a perfect touch pass over Marquice Cole, allowing Boldin to make a play on the ball.
Had this play occurred earlier in the season, Flacco may have thrown it off his back foot or panicked under pressure. Instead, he remained poised and calm to ice the game with a perfect throw.
Whether or not Flacco is an “elite” quarterback is irrelevant at this point, as such arguments are worthless when breaking down the X’s and O’s of the game. However, it is evident that Flacco is playing with more confidence and poise than he has all season, perhaps in his entire career.
Why is Flacco playing so well?
It may be easy to point to Jim Caldwell’s rise to offensive coordinator, but to me, the Ravens’ midseason offensive line shuffle is the move that saved their season. Michael Oher is back on the right side where he is much more comfortable, and Bryant McKinnie is playing rather well on Flacco’s blind side.
This offensive line will be tested against a quality 49ers front, but if they are able to protect Joe Flacco, he should be able to pick apart a 49ers defense that has struggled against the pass as of late without a fully-healthy Justin Smith to apply pressure.
Given Joe Flacco's tendency to be erratic throughout his career, there is always a chance that he can lay an egg in two weeks and cost his team a Super Bowl ring. However, given the upward trend in his play over the past month, the Ravens stand a very good chance with Flacco playing the the form he is in.