Joe Flacco threw two touchdowns and for over 300 yards in the Ravens Week 1 loss to the Broncos, but there is a vast amount of room for improvement.
Manning scored a record-tying seven passing touchdowns in the game, while Flacco completed just 34 of his 62 pass attempts. Though he had two touchdowns, he also threw two interceptions and he couldn't keep up with the Broncos' production.
The Ravens have a decidedly easier opponent in Week 2 with the Cleveland Browns coming to town, but considering how Manning shredded Baltimore's defense, it's possible Flacco could find himself playing from behind again. And any mistakes, no matter the score, aren't going to help the Ravens get their first win of the season.
So how can the Ravens improve their passing game and use it to defeat the Browns? Here are a few ways they can improve.
Many of the Ravens' problems in the passing game stemmed from the receivers themselves (more on that later), but Flacco was just as much to blame. In any game that features one team trailing the other (the Ravens were down 42-17 at the start of the fourth quarter), there's going to be a lot of passing in order to attempt to close the gap.
Understandably, Flacco threw 62 passes; less so, however, is that he completed only 34 of them. While he did have 362 passing yards, the Ravens' day would have been easier if he could have just connected on more of his passes.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Flacco's accuracy percentage for this game was just 67.2. The metric takes drops, hits while throwing, batted passes and throw-aways out of the picture to determine just how accurate a quarterback was. Flacco's rating was 27th in the league (out of 34 players who attempted passes) for Week 1; Manning's was 20th.
|Week 1, 2013||67.2%|
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This is nothing new for Flacco, of course. In 2012, his regular-season accuracy percentage was 68, 33rd in the league. The Ravens still managed to reach the playoffs and win the Super Bowl, even though his accuracy percentage actually dipped in the postseason to 66.4.
The difference between then and now is that Flacco was bailed out by his receivers last year. Now, two of his most important targets are gone, with receiver Anquan Boldin now a San Francisco 49er, and tight end Dennis Pitta sidelined with a fractured hip. Jacoby Jones is also out for the next four to six weeks with a sprained MCL, while second-year receiver Deonte Thompson is working his way back from a foot injury.
Now, Flacco must rely on deep threat Torrey Smith, who was frequently in double and triple coverage against Denver. Smith will make plays, but aside from him, Flacco's other targets are veteran free-agent signings Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark, along with tight end Ed Dickson and undrafted rookie receiver Marlon Brown.
Building chemistry and trust between the new-look receiving corps and Flacco will take time and patience, just as it will for the revamped Ravens defense, if they are to get on the same page. Flacco needs to make better decisions and throws and put his receivers in positions to succeed. No longer does he have reliable safety valves like Boldin and Pitta who can put him in that position like last year.
Reduce the Drops
One thing that didn't help Flacco, regardless of how accurate he threw his passes, was the five drops committed by his receiving targets. Clark, Stokley and Brown each had one, while Dickson had two. Five missed opportunities to catch passes means five ruined chances for drives to continue and it cannot happen on a regular basis if the Ravens are going to get their passing game back on track.
Dickson was the biggest culprit and that can likely be ascribed to him missing most of training camp and all of the preseason with a partial tear of his hamstring. Even veterans like Dickson, who has played with Flacco since 2010, can experience rust and less-than-stellar on-field communication with their quarterbacks.
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In time, Dickson should become more reliable, but drops are part of his history. He had two last year, with just 39 targets and seven in 2011, when he was deemed Baltimore's starting receiving tight end and was targeted 92 times. It's why Pitta overtook Dickson last year, but it's something Dickson needs to work on now that he's back on center stage.
The lone drops committed by Brown, Clark and Stokley speak to inexperience in the new offense, more than anything. The attention focused on getting the new routes run correctly can distract a receiver from doing the one thing he's there to do—catch the football. Only time and repeated practice with Flacco throwing the football can iron this issue out.
Tandon Doss is back, now that Jones is injured. At the very least, Doss is more familiar with Baltimore's offense than the undrafted rookie and the two outside free agents, but he too has hands issues that saw him released from the team when they reduced their roster to 53 men last month. He's a fill-in who may see a few targets, but he's not going to be a difference-maker.
While the less-experienced of Baltimore's receiving corps continues to adapt to their new surroundings, there are other options for Flacco. Throwing to running back Ray Rice is one—he's had three seasons with over 550 receiving yards, including two with over 700. He's the key to Flacco's improvement, especially while his other injured receivers work their ways back.
Fullback Vonta Leach, who had three catches on four targets and Baltimore's first touchdown in Week 1, can also be a reliable receiving option in the same way that Rice is. Though checkdowns aren't exciting, they have been fruitful for the Ravens and Flacco in the past. The Ravens need to be concerned with moving the chains, no matter what the play call.
It's important that Flacco has receivers he can trust. If Dickson, for example, keeps dropping passes, Flacco can't throw to him. That limits Flacco's options and thus the entire passing game. Focus by all of the receivers needs to get better.
Taking Advantage of Mismatches
For all of the issues Flacco had with accuracy and his receivers had with drops against Denver, the play-calling adequately took advantage of mismatches in coverage. Flacco threw to nine different players in the loss, and his ability to read defenses has gotten better.
Against Cleveland, this means recognizing where the defense is soft, especially in the secondary. Smith will draw the attention of the Browns' top cornerback Joe Haden, limiting his effectiveness, especially when Haden is paired up with either safeties T.J. Ward or Tashaun Gipson.
That will leave the 6'5" Brown matched up with one or both of the Browns' other starting cornerbacks, Buster Skrine and Chris Owens, both of whom are 5'9".
Though the size mismatch doesn't speak to how physical the two Browns corners are, the ability of Brown to reach up and catch passes and the corners' inability to keep him from doing so should make Brown a go-to target for Flacco this week. It only makes sense.
Cleveland's coverage linebackers are more of an issue—they all handled their assignments well last week against the Miami Dolphins, with the trio of D'Qwell Jackson, Craig Robertson and Paul Kruger giving up six catches and 65 yards on 10 targets, according to Pro Football Focus.
With Baltimore's mid-field targets—Dickson, Stokley, Clark—all shaky in their regular-season debut last week, Flacco may again not have much success when these three are handled by these very physical linebackers in concert with the safeties. Stokley is the most useful of these three players, however, with the speed to make the linebackers miss.
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Flacco cannot simply go deep over and over again, though it should be the passing tactic that yields the best results. Owens was the weaker of the two Browns corners last week, giving up nine catches on 10 targets for 89 yards and 46 yards after the catch. Skrine allowed six catches on 10 targets for 76 yards, just 10 yards after the catch and one touchdown, but he also successfully defensed a pass as well.
Baltimore must take advantage of mismatches in speed, physicality and height to pass well against the Browns. It may result in a mixed bag of plays—some good, some bad, like we saw last week. However, if Flacco can see them and the receivers and tight ends can limit their mistakes from Week 1, they should be able to move the ball in the air more effectively.
All of this is for naught if the Ravens offensive line cannot keep Flacco protected. The Browns managed four sacks on Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill in Week 1, while Flacco was taken down by the Broncos defense four times himself, though it must also be noted Flacco attempted 62 passes and Tannehill, 38.
Arguably, the Browns have a better pass rush than Denver presently, and they'll likely look to harass Flacco repeatedly. The key will be for the line to not bend to it, and for Flacco to make the right decisions when it comes his way.
In addition to the four sacks, the Browns also had a total of four additional quarterback hits and 13 hurries last week. Flacco was hit three more times in addition to those four sacks and was hurried 17 times.
Based on Flacco's completion percentage when pressured and when blitzed (52.6 and and 44.4, respectively) and Tannehill's (30 percent when pressured, 63.2 percent when blitzed), he should withstand the pressure a little better. In fact, Flacco was Pro Football Focus' ninth-ranked quarterback when faced with pressure last week, while Tannehill was ranked dead last.
What's the biggest key to a successful Ravens passing game this week?
That's a good sign, because there's no doubt that the Browns will be coming after Flacco on Sunday—including former Ravens outside linebacker Paul Kruger, who is looking to personally take down his former quarterback. Kruger isn't Cleveland's only dangerous pass-rusher—there's also fellow outside linebackers Jabaal Sheard and Quentin Groves and defensive end Desmond Bryant to contend with .
This game will also mark the return of linebacker Barkevious Mingo to the football field after suffering a bruised lung in the preseason. The speed and power of Mingo cannot be understated, and the Ravens may struggle to keep him away from the football on Sunday. Accounting for a defender who hasn't put much on tape can be difficult.
Mingo's presence makes Cleveland's defense even more dangerous. Also, Mingo, with his speed and eye for the football, is also going to be used in coverage which adds a wrinkle to the passing game in that way. There's a lot that the Ravens need to be prepared for up front.