Their first two quarters of atrocious offensive football Sunday against lowly Arizona, coupled with the offensive debacle six days prior in a loss to Jacksonville, created a toxic mix at M&T Bank Stadium. I was getting calls from relatives, fuming from the stands. The natives were looking for blood, trust me, and quarterback Joe Flacco and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron were in their sights.
This was going beyond booing. This cacophony of hometown angst was the sound of a Ravens team with Super Bowl aspirations blowing its season. There had already been two "let-down" or "trap" games or whatever you want to call them -- losses at Tennessee and Jacksonville in which the offense simply did not show up in any way, shape or form. If the Ravens were ever going to win the division, get a home playoff game and earn a more palatable path to the Super Bowl, then they needed massive improvement. Immediately.
And if the Ravens do manage to surpass Pittsburgh for AFC North superiority come January, then I have no doubt that many will look back on them erasing a 24-3 second-quarter deficit and salvaging a 30-27 win as a key reason why.
I'm not ready to call it an offensive springboard just yet. This was Arizona, after all, and the game was at home. The Ravens had better stop with the ridiculously slow starts, especially with the always-daunting trip to Pittsburgh looming in Week 9. But even now a loss in Pittsburgh keeps Baltimore within distance of the Steelers; had they lost to Arizona and then in Pittsburgh, now you're talking about a three-game losing streak, offense vs. defense infighting and maybe even staff changes.
An infusion of some explosion, some pace, some emotion and some intent was needed. Flacco and the Ravens delivered. It began to turn at halftime -- Baltimore stumbled around the red zone late in the first half and had to settle for a field goal to make it 24-6 -- when Flacco and fullback Vonta Leach got a little fired up and, shall we say, verbally implored their teammates to do better. Anquan Boldin pretty much demanded the ball, and Flacco fed him (any time Arizona rookie Patrick Peterson was not on Boldin, that's where Flacco went with the ball).
Issues remain -- left guard Andre Gurode is roadkill far too often in pass protection, and if Ben Grubbs remains out with a toe injury, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will focus his energies there. In fact, the offensive line is old and slow for the most part. Flacco and Cameron also have more to hash out. Still, it's worth chronicling the strides the Ravens finally made on offense.
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Flacco loves to run hurry-up out of the shotgun. Yes, it tips your hand and limits play-calling options and yada, yada, yada. But the kid is clearly suited to it and having to go no-huddle so soon put a jolt of energy and focus into the offense that has been sorely lacking. Cameron should have gone to this look earlier in the losses to the Titans and Jags. The receivers have struggled against press man coverage, and a real emphasis was made Sunday to feed the young tight ends and exploit those matchups instead (17 targets), something that hurt Baltimore in Jacksonville.
That helped get Flacco back in a groove after playing six quarters of brutal football. Pass protection remained an issue throughout, and the checkdowns and screens to Ray Rice and Ricky Williams need to be more precise and come out a little quicker. But after a game and a half in the abyss, Flacco rallied:
Flacco's first half: 12 of 23 for 98 yards and a pick (rookie Torrey Smith's fault, not his)
Flacco's second half: 19 of 29 for 234 yards and no TDs or INTs
The Ravens have just one passing touchdown in the past four games (and that was to Rice), something that's going to have to give. But in reality, Flacco's second-half numbers were better than that. He and Boldin ravaged Arizona in the third quarter, and when you factor in the pass interference calls in the end zone that set up Rice for short scores on the ground, the impact becomes more profound.
Flacco threw nine times to Boldin in the third quarter alone (seven recorded targets, plus two attempts that resulted in pass interference calls), including four straight looks in a scoring drive late in the quarter. Boldin had five catches for 117 yards in the third quarter, including four for 21 yards or longer, feasting on corner A.J. Jefferson. By the time Arizona put Peterson back on Boldin, it was too late.
Against the Steelers on Sunday night, I'm sure Ike Taylor will take Boldin, and that could negate that option. The Ravens will look to get their young tight ends matched up against Pittsburgh's banged up outside linebackers on seam routes. And the Steelers will attack the left side of that offensive line and look to generate turnovers, long an issue for Baltimore when playing in Pittsburgh.
Heinz Field could up end being a house of horrors for Baltimore's offense again Sunday night, especially if LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison can play. But they do that to a lot of teams. Anything less than a wild comeback at Arizona's expense (and man, is that team in trouble from the quarterback on down) would have likely doomed any real title chances the Ravens have.