NEW ORLEANS -- The word on the Baltimore Ravens for years has been a very simple one -- defense. No Ravens defensive squad ranked lower than sixth in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted DVOA metrics from 1999 through 2011, and Baltimore finished first in four straight seasons, including 2011. But with several injuries to that estimable unit, it's been the red-headed stepchild of the Ravens franchise for years -- the passing game -- that propelled it to the Super Bowl. Two shifts in perspective allowed that to happen.
First, there was the firing of former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron on Dec. 10, which Cameron later classified as a "brilliant move." It was, but not for the reasons Cameron cited.
“Everyone on the team took a look in the mirror after that," Cameron recently told the New York Times. "We were inconsistent, and if I’m in charge, I’m saying: ‘Why are we inconsistent? We need to get the team’s attention.’"
Kudos to Cameron for being a stand-up guy about the whole thing, but his termination, and the ascent of former quarterbacks coach (and former Indianapolis Colts head coach) Jim Caldwell to that position changed a lot of things.
First of all, Cameron's reliance on straight man-on-man receiver concepts limited the extent to which quarterback Joe Flacco could use his speed receivers. Instead of using trips, bunch, and stack release concepts as most offenses are prone to do in this era of complex and multiple pass defenses, Cameron lined his guys up in a befuddlingly predictable series of two-receiver sets and told them to beat the corners straight on. That may have worked 20 years ago, but nickel and dime defenses were shutting the Ravens down -- and forcing Flacco to make stick throws downfield that most quarterbacks don't have to, because most quarterbacks benefit from formation diversity these days.
So, the first thing Caldwell did, though it wasn't a massive renovation, was to include more "man-beaters" -- lining his receivers up in more advantageous formations and allowing Flacco more options. In addition, Baltimore's offensive line started playing better, which gave Flacco more time to see his targets and progress through his reads.
However, the real change, at least from what the game tape seems to show, is that Flacco has become a far more polished passer in the last month, especially in and around the pocket. Formerly a logey mover whose height worked against him, Flacco became the quarterback needed in today's game -- the one who can more around functionally in the pocket, step up when pressured, and deliver the accurate deep pass with proper mechanics.
The results have been definitive. According to ESPN's Stats and Info, Flacco, always an esteemed deep-ball thrower in theory, became just that in practice under Caldwell. Under Cameron, Flacco completed just 34.2 passes of 21 yards or more, and that total increased to 53.6 under Caldwell. Including the postseason, Flacco has four touchdowns on such throws under Caldwell and just six under Cameron, despite far fewer attempts under the new regime.
Flacco has yet to throw an interception on any of the 101 attempts of 21 yards or more this season, by far the most consecutive deep throws without a pick since Stats and Info started tracking in 2008. He has 10 touchdowns and no interceptions under Caldwell, and he had 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions under Cameron.
Though head coach John Harbaugh credited Cameron with setting up the current passing game, it's quite clear that Caldwell has been the difference.
I think our offense gets looked at to the point where we weren’t playing well all season, which is not necessarily the truth," Flacco said on Monday. "I think we needed a little bit of a spark. I think we were starting to level out maybe a little bit, at least that’s what John [Harbaugh) thought. We had a couple of losses. Jim has done a great job in transitioning and making it as clean as possible and as crisp as possible. I think we’ve gotten back a little bit to our hurry-up offense, and maybe that’s helped us.”
Under Cameron, the Ravens never seemed to reconcile the high-speed no-huddle attack with the run game that makes the offense go as much as anything -- it was either feast or famine. Caldwell espouses a far more balanced approach, forcing defenses to stack up to the run more often, and making them vulnerable to Flacco's impressive command of the play-action game.
“At that particular time, we were very inconsistent in a lot of different areas," Caldwell said on Tuesday of the transition. "So, the big thing was to try to get some consistency. We were getting penalized a little bit too much and certainly those kinds of things weren’t consistent enough in our running game. We gave us maybe a little bit more of an opportunity to be successful – ran the ball more, put an emphasis on it and moved on from there.
“One of the things that we wanted to do was just to make sure that we didn’t leave a ball game and say, ‘Could we have run the ball a little bit more?’ We don’t ever want that to be a question – particularly with the two guys we have in the backfield. We have a Pro Bowl fullback [Vonta Leach] and a Pro Bowl tailback [Ray Rice]. You have to get the ball in their hands and give them an opportunity to make plays for you. Sometimes it takes a little while so you have to have some patience. But we think we have the ability to mix it up a little bit. One thing we’re not going to do is walk out of the stadium and say, ‘Could we have run the ball just a little bit more?’”
Right now, the Ravens don't question whether they've left anything out of the game plan. More than ever, this team's offense leads the way -- and the defense doesn't have to carry the day all the time.
And as San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith said on Tuesday, Baltimore's new versatility is the primary challenge.
“I think what they do is they can run the ball so effectively that they can max it up, max pro it. They run the same protection they run their counter plays out of and they throw it over your head because the safety is biting on the run. That’s the key. [I have to] stop the run. Stop the run, stop the run with a seven man box, try to not get in the eight man boxes, play a light box, and have the safeties deep. That’s going to be a tough job, but that’s what we have to do to win the game.”
So, the Ravens' offense proves to be the ultimate test. Who woulda thunk it?