- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Ravens have a game-changing defense, a top-10 rushing attack and a question mark hovering over their quarterback.
Joe Flacco has completed 49.3 percent of his passes through the first quarter of the season, which is last among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts.
This is baffling for a quarterback who had a 62 percent career completion rate entering this season. Flacco had completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes only four times in his first 49 games. Now, he's completed fewer than half of his throws twice in the past three weeks.
The low point of his season -- and perhaps his career -- was displayed in front of a national television audience Sunday night, when he went 35 1/2 minutes without completing a pass. He didn't connect with a receiver in the second or third quarters. It was an embarrassing streak of 12 incompletions for Flacco, who owns the three longest streaks of completed passes in team history.
Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said that nothing about Flacco has changed but that the game plan has. The Ravens have taken shots downfield that are higher reward, and as evidenced, offer a lower rate of success.
"I don’t think we’re too worried about it," Harbaugh said about the completion rate. "We want the percentage to be higher, but you can be 70 percent and averaging 4 yards a completion or something like that. We’re not really interested in that. We want to attack people as well.”
Flacco has gone downfield as much as any quarterback in the NFL. His 21 attempts of more than 20 yards is second only to Carolina's Cam Newton, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Take away those deep throws (he's 4-for-21 on them), and Flacco has connected on 55 percent of his other passes (65-for-119), which is more in line with how he's performed for most of his career.
It hasn't helped Flacco that he's faced three pass defenses ranked in the top half of the NFL, including the top two -- the Steelers and the Jets. But Flacco knows he has to be more consistent because he'll probably have to beat those same defenses if the Ravens want to reach their first Super Bowl since 2000.
“We’re still coming together and improving as a team,” said Flacco, who is still on pace to set career highs in passing yards and touchdowns this season. “We’ve had a couple good performances on defense, a couple good performances on offense where we’ve put it together. But when we really do put it together and really hit our stride, I think it really will show what we can do as a team.”
Here are three other explanations for Flacco's struggles:
1. The loss of Derrick Mason and Todd Heap. It's easy to forget that the Ravens took the top two receivers in franchise history away from Flacco a week before training camp opened. Some talk about how quarterbacks have security blankets. Well, Flacco had two.
In Flacco's first three seasons in the NFL, Heap and Mason combined for more than half of the receiving touchdowns on the Ravens. They accounted for 38 percent of the catches and ran for 43 percent of the yards.
Instead of throwing to Heap, Flacco is passing to second-year tight end Ed Dickson, who leads the team in receptions (16) as well as drops (two). And instead of having Mason, Flacco has had to go with a less-than-full strength Lee Evans and rookie second-round pick Torrey Smith. The growing pains with new personnel have been greater than expected.
2. The injury to Lee Evans. Flacco has never developed the same chemistry with Anquan Boldin that he had with Mason and Heap. Part of the problem is that Boldin is a more physical receiver who excels in the red zone but doesn't get much separation from defensive backs elsewhere on the field. But Flacco struck an instant rapport with Evans, who continually got open in the preseason.
Despite playing in only half of the preseason games, Evans led the team with 128 receiving yards on six catches. That's 21.3 yards per catch. While his replacement, Torrey Smith, had a spectacular game at St. Louis, he isn't a consistent threat like Evans. Evans has averaged more than 15 yards per catch in six of his seven NFL seasons in the NFL despite playing with five starting quarterbacks (J.P. Losman, Kelly Holcomb, Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Brohm) in six seasons.
Evans, however, hasn't been healthy in the regular season, missing the past two games with an ankle injury. His impact this season has been two catches for 45 yards. The expectation is for Evans to return after the bye for the game against Houston on Oct. 16.
3. The problems dealing with pressure. The weak spot with Flacco, as with many quarterbacks, is handling the pass rush. There's no doubt that he's improved this year. He shakes off defenders and tries to keep the play alive by getting out of the pocket. But Flacco doesn't make the best decisions under fire.
When a defense blitzes (meaning five or more rushers), Flacco has completed 40.5 percent of his passes (15 of 37), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only Jaguars rookie Blaine Gabbert has a worse completion rate in those situations. When given time, Flacco has a strong enough arm to make all the throws and put the ball where it needs to go.
The Ravens believe Flacco will get back on track over the next couple of games, and Flacco has shown in the past that he can bounce back from a poor performance with a hot streak. But if Flacco's struggles continue, everyone will really see how he responds to pressure.