Joe Flacco rings in season of change
The Ravens have won with defense for years -- now it's the offense's turn to shine
BALTIMORE -- Change isn't easy. It takes time and patience and resilience. In the National Football League, change can take years. Long years. Tough years.
But in Baltimore, change has occurred.
Want to know how you know? Joe Flacco had just lofted a very Tom Brady-like 10-yard pass to Dennis Pitta for a touchdown to give Baltimore a 24-13 lead over a pesky Cincinnati team. Ray Lewis, a Raven since 1996, turned to Ed Reed, a Raven since 2002, on the sideline and said, "Our offense is doing what they're supposed to do. It's time for us to do what we're supposed to do."
Suffice it to say that sideline conversation between Baltimore's defensive leaders had never occurred quite like that. The offense leading the team? The Ravens? You bet. It is happening now.
It is only one week and one game. Teams' fates tend to get written after Week 1, the storyline prematurely and often inaccurately spun. Look at the teams who won in Week 1 last season. The Jaguars beat the Titans. The Cardinals beat the Panthers. The Redskins beat the Giants. How did that work out?
But it is an inescapable truth after the Ravens clobbered the Bengals 44-13, scoring the final 27 points of the game -- Baltimore looks like it will be a handful on offense this season. Flacco was sharp. He ran the no-huddle and called plays, constantly keeping the pressure on a Bengals defense that struggled in the secondary. He spread the ball around, completing passes to four receivers, two tight ends, a running back and a fullback. And despite what he called a few communication issues, Flacco was more often than not on the money, completing 21 of 29 passes for 299 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Flacco was particularly proficient throwing the deep ball. Flacco was 7-of-10 for 194 yards and one touchdown on throws traveling 15 or more yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Perhaps even more impressive was his overall completion percentage of 72.4. John Harbaugh said weeks ago that he wanted Flacco, who completed 57.6 percent of his passes last season, to be in the 70s this year. It sounded preposterous, but Harbaugh was insistent. Flacco is that good, and the Ravens have surrounded him with the pieces he needs, including a proven quarterbacks coach in Jim Caldwell, a speedy receiver in Torrey Smith, a happy running back in the newly re-signed Ray Rice and a fortified offensive line.
In the past, Flacco admitted recently, the offense eased off the gas in games after getting a lead, relying instead on the defense to win the game for them. They didn't do that on Monday night. Not even close.
"That's probably what we expected," Harbaugh said after the game. "I'd like to find another way to say it and not sound like we were right all along, or whatever, but I did expect to see that. That's what we looked like in practice. That's what we thought we could be in games. I'm just glad to see the whole offense take the practice reps to the game. But it is just one game."
It was just one game. Sunday at Philadelphia will be another. Then there will be another, and another and another.
But it is difficult to defend a quarterback who throws a 52-yard strike to Smith on the first play of the game. That set the tone. That got the Bengals' attention. So did Flacco's first touchdown throw to Anquan Boldin, which gave the Ravens a 17-3 lead. Flacco dropped back, pump faked, and then under duress launched a 34-yard bullet off his back foot that cleared Cincinnati safety Taylor Mays and hit Boldin in stride.
"He was on fire," Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga said.
Cincinnati scored on its last possession of the second quarter and first possession of the third quarter to cut the Baltimore lead to 17-13. Flacco didn't flinch. Backed up on the Ravens' 6-yard line, Flacco drove the Ravens downfield, completing a 23-yard pass to Pitta, an 18-yard pass to Rice and a 19-yard pass to Ed Dickson before finding Pitta in the end zone.
"He just keeps pressure on the defense," Harbaugh said.
"When we put those points on the board," Flacco said, "it puts pressure on other teams' offenses to do things that they might not normally do. Against our defense, that might not work out too well. So I think that's why we have to keep that pressure on, because we're going to get some turnovers here and there, and games will turn in our favor."
After the Ravens extended their lead "that let us basically get out there and hunt after Andy Dalton," Baltimore defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "And that's what we did."
Now, in another example of how things have changed in Baltimore, Reed said that the defense needs to guard against getting complacent. It can't let up, like the offense did for so many years. It can't use a potent offense as a crutch.
"We've got to not get in that same mode, because our offense is so good," Reed said.
The Ravens have big expectations. They haven't lost a season opener since Harbaugh and Flacco arrived in 2008. They now have won 19 of their past 20 home games, including all eight last regular season. They swept the division in 2011 and made their second AFC title game appearance.
Now they want more.
"It's a team now," Reed said. "It's a full team. It's a very good team with a great offense and a great defense and great special teams. We just have to put it all together. It's something this organization has been building toward for a long time."
Lewis was asked if this is the offense he's been waiting for all these years. He laughed. "I've been here a long time," he said. "You can finish that off for me."
Yes. The answer is yes. Imagine all of the Super Bowls the Ravens might have won had their devastating defense been paired with a prolific offense.
But change doesn't come quickly.
When it was over, Harbaugh strolled through the locker room. The next game in Philadelphia, where he worked for a decade, will be an emotional one. The Ravens will have a short week to prepare for a team that has its own array of offensive weapons.
"I'll tell you," Harbaugh said, "it's fun to win. It's fun to win."
It was only one game, but it was one game down in a season of change. Fifteen more to go.