For all of the changes to the defensive side of the Baltimore Ravens roster in the offseason, it's their offense that has struggled the most this year.
Unable to run the ball behind a poor offensive line, quarterback Joe Flacco has been asked to put more on his shoulders—something he should be comfortable with after being the motive force behind his team's playoff run and Super Bowl win last year.
Flacco has never been a consistent quarterback, with wild variations in his passing performance on a near weekly basis. However, he is a strong-armed passer, able to hit on the deep ball better than many of his contemporaries.
But something strange has happened this season. Flacco has been unable to hit his longer throws with any regularity. According to Pro Football Focus, (subscription required) Flacco hasn't thrown a single touchdown pass on any of his 44 attempts of 20 or more yards. He's the only quarterback in the league who hasn't gotten a touchdown off of a deep ball.
Joe Flacco: 0 TD on 40 passes thrown 20+ yards downfield this season, most attempts of any QB without a TD in 2013— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 7, 2013
Based on PFF's metrics, Flacco is tied for second in deep-passing attempts. Such throws make up 14.2 percent of his attempts on the year, ranking him 11th. However, with just 10 completions on those 44 attempts (along with two dropped passes and three interceptions), he ranks 32nd out of 35 quarterbacks in downfield passing accuracy.
This is a major contrast from his ability to throw downfield in 2012. Last year, Flacco also finished second in deep-pass attempts (92) but was tied for first in touchdowns (11). The 17.3 percent of his total attempts meant that he threw long more than any other quarterback, and his 35 completions with no interceptions made him the 18th-most accurate passer for the year on throws of 20-plus yards.
Nothing drastic has happened to Flacco or his arm strength. He's not injured—in fact, Flacco is one of the most durable quarterbacks in the league, having never missed a game in his career.
His completion percentage of 59.4 is in line with how he's performed in previous years, as are his 6.99 average yards per pass attempt. His 2,167 passing yards has him well on his way to reach the 3,600-to-3,850 yardage range he's reached in each of his last four seasons. The only difference is that his nine interceptions in 2013 puts him on pace to easily eclipse his high of 12 picks in a season, a number that he's had in three different years).
via Pro Football Focus (subscription required)
While wideout Torrey Smith is thought of as the Ravens' primary deep threat, he's remarkably boom or bust. He does see the majority of Flacco's passes of 20 or more yards, but he doesn't pull down very many of them. So far this year, Smith has been targeted deep 24 times and has recorded seven catches for 293 yards. Last year, Smith was targeted long 44 times, with 13 catches for 425 yards and five scores.
Granted, Smith isn't creating enough yards after the catch on his seven deep receptions to earn him touchdowns this year. He is catching deep passes at a similar rate as he did last year, however, so that doesn't explain why Flacco's overall downfield production has dropped so steeply.
Instead, it's the absence of Boldin—or a suitable replacement for him—that has harmed Flacco's ability to complete passes deep down the field.
Counting Smith, Flacco has thrown long passes to six players: receivers Smith, Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, Marlon Brown, Jacoby Jones and Brandon Stokley and one to tight end Ed Dickson. Only Smith, Doss and Thompson have caught any—the aforementioned seven to Smith, two for Doss and one to Thompson.
Last year, Boldin had 16 deep targets, with an impressive 10 catches for 286 yards and four touchdowns. He had no drops on deep passes and a catch rate of 62.5 percent compared to 29.5 percent for Smith. It's not just Boldin's overall reliability that Flacco is missing now; more specifically, it is how reliable Boldin is on deep passes.
It doesn't help that another of Flacco's favored targets, tight end Dennis Pitta, has spent the season sidelined with a hip injury. Though he's "closer than ever" to returning, according to Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, when exactly that may be is not yet known.
But Pitta wasn't a major part of Baltimore's deep-passing offense last year and may not have a huge impact in that area when and if he does take the field this season. He saw only 11 deep passes thrown his way, with just three catches for 94 yards and one touchdown in 2012. His eventual return will help Flacco immensely—he caught 61 of 93 targets for 669 yards and seven scores last year—but it won't improve Flacco's ability to connect downfield.
If Flacco's touch on the long ball is going to get back on track, then he'll need Doss, Brown, Jones, Dickson—someone, anyone—to be able to catch those passes once reserved for Boldin. It's not a matter of just throwing long more often to Smith; reasonably speaking, he can't get many more deep targets than he's already seeing. Someone—or a group of someones—must step up, get separation from their defenders and get open downfield.
Flacco is most effective when throwing the home run strike, but he needs receivers capable of catching them and scoring touchdowns. Trading Boldin significantly impacted Flacco's success rate as a deep passer, especially without an adequate replacement for his production emerging from Baltimore's receiver corps.
If the Ravens cannot solve this problem, their stalled-out offense won't be going anywhere soon.