Print and Go Back ESPN.com: AFC North [Print without images]

Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Don't take offense that Ravens are here

By James Walker
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

Albert Haynesworth was not impressed. He played them twice and stopped them mostly, albeit not often enough to beat them when it mattered.

Haynesworth, the Tennessee Titans' all-world defensive tackle, couldn't believe the meager Baltimore Ravens were advancing to the AFC Championship Game.

 
  Larry French/Getty Images
  Joe Flacco has run the Baltimore offense efficiently his first season in the league.

"I think their offense is weak," he said after the Ravens ousted the Titans, 13-10, at LP Field in the divisional playoffs. "I don't think they have much of an offense. We shut down the run. We shut down pretty much the pass."

Bitterness stoked Haynesworth's comments. Boredom has done the same for many others.

Baltimore's offense doesn't exactly defibrillate the Sunday soul. It is based on such hardcore football tenets as ball control, field position and clock management.

"Nothing that'll make you put your seatbelt on and have a sweat towel off to the side for," said ESPN analyst and former Pro Bowl quarterback Kordell Stewart.

But the Ravens are more intricate than three runs and a visit from the long snapper. Although they'll never be described as prolific, the Ravens head into Sunday's showdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers with one of the NFL's more straightforward and efficient offenses.

Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has designed a system unassuming rookie quarterback Joe Flacco can handle mainly because a run play never is the wrong play.

Le'Ron McClain, Willis McGahee and Ray Rice propelled the Ravens to an average of 148.5 rushing yards a game, fourth-highest in the league. They ranked 28th in passing offense, trying the third-fewest throws.

The Ravens committed 21 turnovers, a decent figure. Yet when subtracted from their league-high 34 takeaways, their plus-13 turnover margin ranked third.

The Ravens came up with three takeaways deep in their own territory to beat the Titans.

"They had about two or three pass plays and that's about it," Haynesworth lamented. "We gave them a lot of stuff. The offense gave the ball away and kept them in the game."

Podcast: Football Today
Jeremy Green takes an early look at the AFC Championship Game with ESPN.com blogger James Walker.

With the Ravens' incandescent defense providing support, the need for Flacco to take chances is minimized. So often the Ravens' defense would steal the ball, perhaps score on its own and usually set up the offense with a short field.

Or, with the high likelihood of a three-and-out performance from Baltimore's defenders, a simple Sam Koch punt looked good enough that the Ravens would run on third down and be content to flip the field that way.

"It's doing all the right things to put your team in position to win," said Marc Trestman, a former offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach for seven NFL teams and now head coach of the Montreal Alouettes.

"It would be just totally inappropriate for them to put all the weight on the shoulder of Joe Flacco at this point in his career. They don't have to because they have elements that are dynamic: Their ability to play defense, the ability to get the football, the ability to get to the quarterback, play special teams and run the football."

Despite its reputation, Baltimore's offense has had some explosive moments.

  Ravens vs. Steelers
  NFL.com Video
  A look ahead to the AFC Championship Game.

From Week 7 through the end of the regular season the Ravens averaged 27.9 points. Only three other teams scored more points in that span. From Weeks 7 through 10 they scored 27, 29, 37 and 41 points -- the first time in franchise history they posted at least 27 points in four straight games.

Granted, the defense played a significant role in those point totals.

"If I had to give the offense a grade, I would give them a strong C-plus, or maybe a B-minus just to be a good guy because of the rookie," Stewart said. "But they don't make mistakes. They don't beat themselves."

Cameron harnessed Flacco for much of the season. Flacco didn't have any 300-yard or three-touchdown games. Twelve times Flacco threw one or zero touchdown passes, tying him with Jake Delhomme for third-most among quarterbacks who played every game.

The Ravens had only four 100-yard receiving games. Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton had two apiece.

Yet Flacco didn't throw an interception in 10 games.

"It's certainly not a Peyton Manning-style offense," ESPN analyst and former Ravens receiver Qadry Ismail said. "It's certainly not a vertical offense of a Philip Rivers, or one that will put tons of points on the board like Drew Brees', but it definitely has the potential to get there. It's an effective offense."

Often overlooked is the performance of Baltimore's overhauled line. Left tackle Jonathan Ogden, a future Hall of Famer, retired. None of the starters at the end of last season returned to the same spot.

 
  Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
  Willis McGahee and the Ravens' run game help take pressure off their rookie quarterback.

Center Jason Brown was the left guard last year. Ben Grubbs switched from right guard to left. Right tackle Willie Anderson was acquired two days before the opener. Right guard Marshal Yanda suffered a season-ending knee injury five games into the season.

While clearing pathways for McClain and McGahee, the interchangeable parts kept Flacco's uniform adequately clean. The Ravens surrendered 33 sacks, putting them at the league average.

Tall and calm in the pocket, Flacco's demeanor is perfect for carrying out a well-laid game plan.

He's borderline comatose regardless of the situation. Still in his pads after last Saturday's victory in Nashville, Tenn., he called the series that produced Matt Stover's winning field goal with 53 seconds to play "same as any other drive."

Flacco is the first rookie quarterback to win two playoff games, though his postseason numbers are pedestrian: 48.8 completion percentage, 296 yards and one touchdown with zero interceptions.

"It defies conventional thinking, but they've done an excellent job of using Joe Flacco in just the way that they need to," Brian Billick said Monday on ESPN Radio's "The Herd with Colin Cowherd." Billick was Baltimore's head coach for nine years before John Harbaugh took over this season.

"Quarterbacks hate the term 'manage the game,' but that's exactly what he's done for the season, and what a great initial season for him to have. Can you imagine how far ahead he's now going to be in his progression going into next year than had he not played this year?"

Flacco is playing better than Trent Dilfer and Tony Banks did through the first two rounds of the 2000 playoffs, when the Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl. Dilfer and Banks combined to complete 43.8 percent of their passes for 247 yards and a touchdown without any interceptions.

"It's a good, solid offense," said Ismail, a two-time 1,000-yard receiver for the Ravens and member of their title team. "I would not be embarrassed to say that Ravens offense is in the AFC Championship Game.

"It doesn't necessarily excite me as producing one of the most thrilling games, but Ravens fans are very much in tune to the difficulties of past offense performances over the years. So they're excited about what they see from this offense.

"They'll take what they can get for now, and for now that means they're in the AFC Championship Game against their division rival. There's no complaining."