How Can Joe Flacco Return to MVP Caliber?

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How Can Joe Flacco Return to MVP Caliber?
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Joe Flacco has helped lead the Baltimore Ravens to a disappointing 3-4 start to the 2013 season.

The Baltimore Ravens have not played up to expectations this season, coming off a Super Bowl victory where Joe Flacco was awarded MVP honors in the biggest game of his career.

That's not to say this year has been a disaster. Other than the season opener against the Denver Broncos, the 3-4 Ravens have been competitive in each of their losing efforts, falling by three points or less.

However, there has been something missing in Baltimore, drawing comparisons to the 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers, who failed to make the playoffs following a Super Bowl championship, via ESPN:

That missing element has been the inconsistent play of Flacco at quarterback. And in order for the Ravens to get out of this current funk, the recent recipient of a six-year, $120.6 million contract simply needs to play better.

Let's take a look at how Baltimore's signal-caller can become the Joe of old and help push his team back into the playoffs, a place the Ravens have been for the past five straight seasons.

 

Protect the Football

Flacco hasn't been the flashiest of passers in recent years, but if there's one thing the sixth-year veteran has excelled at, it's limiting turnovers.

In five previous seasons, Flacco has never had a year with more or the same number of interceptions compared to touchdowns. If you remove his rookie campaign, he has an average differential of 11 (22 TD, 11 INT).

Through seven games this seasons, Flacco has eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. Only four other quarterbacks have thrown more picks, with Eli Manning leading the pack at 15—another former Super Bowl MVP struggling in 2013.

The main culprit in this careless exhibit was the Week 4 matchup against the Buffalo Bills, where Flacco completed five passes to the defense, a feat he has never performed previously in his career. 

Although one of the interceptions was caused by an Ed Dickson drop, the other plays were predicated on poor decisions by Flacco, forcing throws or simply not seeing defenders. 

To his credit, Flacco has improved dramatically over the past three games following the matchup in Buffalo, only throwing one interception. In fact, the last two games he has not thrown any picks, keeping the games close, yet still resulting in defeat.

Limiting turnovers will help serve as a baseline for success at the quarterback position, but there are other factors that are necessary to elevate a player such as Flacco back into the elite category.

 

Deep-Passing Accuracy

In 2012, Flacco had only one game in which he did not complete a pass for 20 yards or more. His accuracy in that category ranked 15th in the NFL with 40.2 percent, and he was second in attempts with 92, via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Fast-forward to this season and Flacco has regressed substantially in this category, falling to 29.2 percent in deep-passing accuracy. Among quarterbacks with 50 percent of their teams' attempts, Flacco ranks 21st among 25 signal-callers.

/Getty Images
Joe Flacco has made 37 pass attempts for over 20 yards this year. Unfortunately, these passes have generally been incomplete.

Furthermore, this season's statistics are not a matter of poor sample size or fluky numbers. Flacco has attempted the second-most passes of 20 yards or more among all quarterbacks with 37. His passes have lacked precision and touch, with two of his eight interceptions coming in this area.

In order for the Ravens to circle around their quarterback, Flacco needs to connect more consistently on the big play. He has pockets of success, including a 74-yard strike to Torrey Smith in the loss against Buffalo. 

But you can't couple that with the level of inaccuracy seen in other attempts by Flacco this season.

 

Red-Zone Touchdowns

A team's inability to score touchdowns when entering the red zone is a general indication of ineptitude on offense, as well as an indication of a team's lack of success. 

The five teams ranking at the bottom of touchdown scoring percentage in the red zone all have losing records, combining for a 10-24 record, via Team Rankings.

The Ravens rank 16th this season at 52.2 percent, relatively mediocre for a defending champion squad.

And while red-zone attempts can run sour due to a poor rushing effort, unless teams are consistently in 3rd-and-short situations, the onus falls on the quarterback.

Joe Flacco, for example.

Can the Baltimore Ravens still make the playoffs under the leadership of Joe Flacco?

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Last season, the Ravens ranked sixth in the NFL with a red-zone touchdown ratio of 60.3 percent. In the team's memorable Super Bowl run in the playoffs, Flacco threw for seven touchdowns and zero interceptions.

This compared with a 10-of-12 touchdown scoring percentage, or 83.3 percent in the playoffs.

As careful, accurate and effective as Flacco has been in past seasons, he seems to have slipped in his sixth year as a pro. Whether that is based on complacency after a megacontract or just a regression to the mean, the Ravens quarterback has nine more games to get on track.

And a Week 8 bye may be just the ticket for Flacco to clear his head, especially in preparation for a winnable game against the Cleveland Browns.  

 

All statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference, unless otherwise noted.

Matthew Stensrud is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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