The Baltimore Ravens have been a hard team to figure out this season. They couldn’t have started stronger with the 34-7 thrashing of their hated division rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. After that game, many fans and analysts declared the Ravens the inevitable winners of the AFC North, the team to beat in the AFC and guaranteed Super Bowl contenders.
Everything looked great for the Ravens… until they played their next game versus the Tennessee Titans. Against the Titans, the Ravens had a complete letdown. The defense that completely shut down and embarrassed the Steelers was burned by Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and receiver Kenny Britt, and the offense that gashed the Steelers could get anything going against the Titans.
The Titans game caused everyone to start questioning and doubting the Ravens. Was Week 1 a fluke? Was the Titans game just a letdown after an emotional win? Exactly how good are the Ravens? That one loss has stuck in the back of the minds of the fans, and many people began wondering exactly how far the Ravens can go this season.
After the Titans game, the Ravens would go on a three-game winning streak with wins against the St. Louis Rams, the New York Jets and Houston Texans. There’s no question that those three wins were impressive.
Against the Rams, the Ravens offense put up some gaudy statistics. Against the Jets, the defense put on one of the best performances in team history, and against the Texans, the Ravens played a balanced, complete game.
The Ravens started to earn back the trust of the fanbase, but even after three wins, there were still some concerns. The offensive line was having a difficult time protecting Flacco, the receivers were not getting open consistently and most concerning of all, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had a very low completion percentage.
Despite all the concerns, the fans were optimistic because the Ravens were still winning games, and in the NFL, a win is a win.
Unfortunately, that optimism didn’t last long because as soon as the fans and media analysts started to buy into the Ravens again, they showed even more inconsistency. The Ravens played the Jacksonville Jaguars on "Monday Night Football" and probably couldn’t have played any worse in front of a national audience if they had tried.
Against the Jaguars, nothing was working. Flacco was awful and couldn’t seem to complete a pass all night. Ray Rice also posted a poor performance, struggled with fumbles and was surprisingly benched at one point in the game. The Ravens defense was the only bright spot in the game, but even they allowed over 100 yards rushing to Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
Once again, the Ravens would raise doubts and questions and let down a fanbase that was just starting to believe in the team again. There were so many questions on the offense that many people believed that offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was in danger of losing his job, and many people even started to question Flacco’s ability and ceiling as a NFL quarterback.
It was one of the lowest points for the Ravens offense in franchise history and reminded fans of when the Ravens offense went five games without scoring an offensive touchdown in the 2000 season. Similar to the 2000 team, this Ravens offense was causing the team to lose despite stellar play by the defense.
After the Jaguars game, the Ravens played the Arizona Cardinals at home, and fans were hoping for the Ravens to bounce back in a strong showing. The Ravens did bounce back with a win but couldn’t have started the game out any worse. They allowed the Cardinals three easy touchdowns, one on a kickoff return and two others on short fields after the offense turned the ball over, and were down three scores at the end of the first half.
In the first half, the Ravens offense was again terrible and looked as bad as they did against the Jaguars. They were so bad that the fans started to boo the offense.
It certainly looked like the Ravens were going to lose the game, but starting with the last drive of the first half, the Ravens offense seemed to wake up. They were able to drive down the field with the no-huddle offense and put a field goal on the scoreboard before the half.
That drive may not have seemed like much at the time, but it may have been a turning point in the season for the Ravens.
The Ravens offense started strong in the first game against the Steelers, but seemed to be going downhill after that. Even though they had some success here and there, each defense they faced was improving the game plan on how to stop them.
They were predictable and worst of all, exploitable. It was clear that teams figured out that the way to beat the Ravens was to shut down their offense and force them into mistakes, and it was working up until the second half of the Cardinals game.
In the second half, the Ravens offense started focusing on the quick passing game and simply getting first downs. That opened up things down the field and along the sidelines. For the first time all season, the Ravens were balanced on offense.
What was the difference—the change that they made? It was actually a very subtle but critical change.
The Ravens started calling plays that highlighted the strengths of the players on offense and covered up their weaknesses. They allowed Flacco to work from the shotgun, which is one of his strengths, and they created underneath receiving options with the tight ends so Flacco could get the ball off quickly and take the pressure off the offensive line, which was struggling in pass protection.
They effectively negated several of their biggest and most exploitable weaknesses while relying in the strengths of their players.
The best part is that the offense was able to effectively install and implement its new game plan against the Steelers. The new look offense focuses on taking what the defense gives them.
They start with the running game and short passing game to setup short third down conversions. Against the Steelers the Ravens converted 14 out of 21 third downs—the most third down conversions the Steelers have allowed in the Super Bowl era.
The Ravens offense basically learned the same lesson that the 2000 Ravens offense needed to learn. They don’t always need to win games by themselves, but they do need to find a way to keep the opposing defense on the field and generate points, even if it’s only field goals. Any offensive success at all puts tremendous pressure on the opposing offense and plays to the strength of the team, the defense.
The Ravens seemed to have learned that lesson this season after struggling with inconsistency all year. The game plan that they’ve created should serve them well going forward, but until they prove that the can consistently move the ball on offense and avoid letdowns as a team, they're going to struggle to win games.
Ravens fans are still going to have a hard time trusting the team, but they have a reason to be optimistic after the offense seems to have redefined itself successfully.
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