Air Raven

Surprise, surprise. Run-loving Baltimore suddenly has a passing game and, perhaps, a QB who is ready to lead
September 20, 2009

On the eve of his team's season opener against the Chiefs, Baltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron offered a preview of what to expect from the Ravens' offense. "We ran the football last year, and we intend to run the football this year," he said of a unit that last season led the league in rushing attempts and time of possession. Then he added a telling disclaimer: "We also won't be afraid to open it up more than we did."

No kidding. Facing a Kansas City defense that ranked 30th against the run in 2008, the historically clock-chewing, risk-averse Ravens went into a no-huddle offense, lined up in multiple five-wideout sets, and threw the ball deep over the middle—all on their opening drive. Cameron called for passes on their first six plays. After one half, Baltimore had thrown the ball 24 times and run it 13, and the final numbers were staggering: Powered by quarterback Joe Flacco's career day (26 for 43, 307 yards, three touchdowns) and a formidable ground game (198 yards on 41 carries), the Ravens generated a team-record 501 yards of total offense on their way to a 38--24 win.

"You could say we weren't anticipating that," Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel said of Baltimore's air attack. "We had planned for a running game."

Who could blame them? Last year the Ravens rumbled to the AFC Championship Game relying on their longtime winning formula: a playbook packed with up-the-gut runs and a devastating defense. After the Kansas City game the Ravens wouldn't say whether their attack was a sign of things to come ("Hard to predict," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "We're going to throw more if it's going to help us win a game"), but Cameron and Harbaugh clearly recognize that for the Ravens to close the gap between themselves and the Steelers in the AFC North, they must take the training wheels off their second-year quarterback. Baltimore doesn't need the 24-year-old Flacco to perform like Tom Brady to make another run deep into January. But this is a franchise with high expectations—a massive banner depicting the Lombardi Trophy hangs behind a goal post in its training facility in Owings Mills, Md.—and to reach them it will need Flacco to make the big plays. Against unforgiving teams such as the Chargers (whom they play in San Diego this weekend) and the Patriots (Oct. 4 in Foxborough), the Ravens will almost certainly need Flacco to move the ball down the field late in close games, something he was unable to do last year in three losses to Pittsburgh.

Flacco was hardly perfect on Sunday. While the offense moved with ease in the first half, outgaining the Chiefs 215 to 56, it sputtered in the red zone. Flacco overthrew receivers, and in the third quarter, up 10--7, he lofted a ball into the hands of Kansas City linebacker Derrick Johnson, who returned it 70 yards. But the 2008 first-round draft pick also flashed serious upside as he made the most of a thin corps of receivers. He sprayed the ball around the field, throwing to seven different targets, connecting nine times with running backs. On a third-and-eight with the game tied at 24 late in the fourth quarter, Flacco stared down an all-out blitz and floated a gorgeous 31-yard deep ball into the outstretched hands of wideout Michael Clayton for a touchdown.

"The main difference with Joe this year is his poise," says Derrick Mason, the veteran of the Ravens' wideout corps. "He's more comfortable with his weapons and how to use them. On his first touchdown pass, on a third down, Flacco moved around the pocket and had nothing in the end zone. Then he saw [Willis] McGahee get open for the touchdown. He doesn't make that play a year ago."

Baltimore's passing game stretched the Chiefs' defense and set up the ground attack—second-year scatback Ray Rice finished with 108 yards on 19 carries; McGahee rushed for 44 yards and a touchdown—and the Ravens also showed that they still might have a Super Bowl--caliber defense under new coordinator Greg Mattison. Kansas City gained 50 of its 188 total yards on one pass play and sustained only one long drive: a six-play, 80-yard effort that resulted in a fourth-quarter touchdown. (The Chiefs' two other TDs came on a second-quarter punt block and a two-yard pass after Johnson's interception return.)

But the true revelation was Flacco and the passing game. "This team is going to grow up as fast as Joe grows up," said linebacker and face of the franchise Ray Lewis after the game. "We'll go as far as he takes us."

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PHOTOBILL FRAKES (FLACCO)JOE COOL Flacco's poise under defensive pressure is helping him make plays he wouldn't have made a year ago. PHOTOGARY BOGDON (WILLIAMS)

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