In 2011, the Baltimore Ravens took the most offensive snaps in the NFL out of the conventional "21" personnel -- two backs, one tight end, and two receivers. They went that way 37 percent of the time, per Football Outsiders' game-charting metrics, and ran out of it 61 percent of the time, as you'd expect. When the Ravens were behind, they ran the ball less often than any other team, and when they were ahead, few teams ran more often. No team went single-back less often, only two teams went with three wide receivers with less frequency, and a four-receiver set in a Ravens offensive play was the football equivalent of a legitimate Bigfoot sighting. Defenses knew what was coming to the point where you'd start to wonder if the Ravens' opponents were reading minds.
Under offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, the Ravens' offense was old-school in all the worst ways from a passing game perspective. Rooted in the Sid Gillman/Don Coryell/Norv Turner concepts of the deep-strike pass, Cameron's formation concepts did not add the diversity required in the current NFL.
The word was that this was going to change in 2012 -- Cameron and new quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell had said all offseason that the Ravens would be more expansive and faster in their overall game plan. This certainly proved to be true in the 2012 preseason -- in 304 total offensive plays, Baltimore put three receivers on the field for 190 plays, and just one tight end out there on 226 plays. Add in what's become one of the faster no-huddle attacks in the NFL, and this is most definitely NOT your father's Baltimore Ravens offense. The primary beneficiary of this approach is clearly quarterback Joe Flacco, who opened the Ravens' 2012 regular season by going off the hook in a 44-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Flacco completed 21 of 29 passes for 299 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. It wasn't the most dominant of stat lines, but the game tape clearly showed that Flacco was playing on a different plane. Because the Ravens were winning going away, he only attempted one pass in the fourth quarter and sat out the last eight minutes of the game.
The no-huddle, which Flacco ran all the time at Delaware, was the primary narrative.
"They went no-huddle quite a bit in the preseason, and worked on it a lot in the offseason," Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's "NFL Matchup" told me last week. "If you watch the third preseason game -- the 'dress rehearsal game' against Jacksonville -- they were in a speed no-huddle. This wasn't like the Patriots, where Tom Brady just stands there and surveys and waits -- they were playing fast. In the time Flacco played in that game, which was through the first drive in the third quarter, they ran 48 offensive plays in 20 minutes of possession time. This is a speed no-huddle, and I'm really anxious to see how this plays out. They're going to do this, and they're committed to it."
The Ravens did do a lot of no-huddle against the Bengals, but it was a new formation diversity that allowed Flacco to air it out like never before. With a set of offensive concepts finally designed to set defenses on edge, Flacco was dynamite with the deep ball. Per ESPN's Stats & Info, he completed 7 of 10 passes that traveled 15 yards or more downfield -- in 2011, he completed just 34 percent of such throws. In addition, he was very effective against the Bengals' blitzes, going 6 of 9 for 87 yards when the Bengals rushed five or more. Both touchdown throws came against Cincinnati's blitz packages.
Between the no-huddle and a multi-dimensional playbook, Flacco had the Bengals on their heels all the way.
"That certainly wasn't what we expected to have out there today," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. "We got outplayed and we got outcoached ... I wish I could say it was the no-huddle. I think it's an effective thing for them, and it's something they'll continue to do, but I don't think it really bothered us."
Flacco disagreed on the effectiveness of the no-huddle. "I think it was big. These guys [the Bengals] can get after the passer big-time -- we really found that out two years ago. When you talk to our linemen, it was huge, the effect it had on those guys, and how much it took away from the sense that [the Bengals] could get after us.
"We had a little miscommunication here and there that we need to work on, but we were able to keep the tempo up for the most part," Flacco said after the game. "That was huge for our offensive alignment and our matchups. Late in the game, we started to get some pretty good chunks [of yardage] down the field. It really worked out well."
And as Cosell pointed out, the speed approach is especially sound strategy in the AFC North. "They're looking at their division," he said. "Pittsburgh is getting older on defense, Cincinnati has some issues at safety -- you get the defensive personnel on the field you want, and you stay with that. Defenses can't really substitute in a speed no-huddle. So, they're looking at this as, 'We have some pretty good weapons now, and we have some advantages here.'
"Flacco never huddled at Delaware, by the way -- the first time he huddled was in the NFL. So, he's done this before. I think they'll be in three-wide a lot with this no-huddle, probably with Ed Dickson as the tight end. I think they probably feel pretty good that they can line up Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith -- two guys who can run on the outside -- and Anquan Boldin the slot, where he's at his best. Ray Rice is an excellent receiver, and he's clearly formation-versatile. So, they clearly feel very comfortable with that."
Flacco has always had a cannon for an arm, but a new touch and accuracy -- perhaps instilled by Caldwell -- was clearly there on both touchdown passes. The 34-yard scoring throw to Boldin with 12:25 left in the first half was as good a deep touch pass as you'll ever see, and few quarterbacks could put the biscuit in the basket as well as Flacco did on the third-quarter touchdown pass to tight end Dennis Pitta.
"I think it's always an adjustment when you work with someone new and someone who is trying to fit in and be a part of what we've done here the past couple of years," Flacco said in July of his work with Caldwell. "However, I don't think it's a tough adjustment, and I don't think it's an unwanted adjustment. It's something that you need to embrace."
The Ravens have always been about defense and the running game, and in a league that values the passing game more than ever, that's had them on the outside looking in. However, if this is what we're going to see from Baltimore's team all season, and the defenses facing Flacco are forced to adjust for once, this could be the team the rest of the NFL can't wait to avoid.
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