Strong-armed quarterback speedy wide receivers = big plays. Right?
The Ravens were one of the league's most explosive teams last year. But this season, it has oddly been a struggle to hit the home run.
Last year, the Ravens were third in the NFL with 72 plays of 20 yards or more. This year, they're tied for 21st overall with just 34.
Baltimore has scored just one touchdown on a pass over 20 yards, a 26-yarder to receiver Torrey Smith in Buffalo. Running back Ray Rice's 47-yard jaunt to start the game in Chicago was just the third run over 20 yards this season.
So what's the difference?
"To analyze it and put the reasons out there wouldn't really help us as a football team. We'll let people figure that out for themselves," Head Coach John Harbaugh said.
"Our task is to get better at it. You need big plays – that's for sure. You need chunk plays in the run game, you need over-the-top pass plays, and you need catch-and-run pass plays. Those are things that make the difference for you. It's pretty hard to just whittle your way down the field and be perfect every play against the caliber defenses we play. The big plays are very important, and we've got to find a way to make those and eliminate the issues we're having right now."
The Ravens relied on the big passing play throughout last year's playoff run.
In Denver, quarterback Joe Flacco started with a 59-yard touchdown to Smith, who whizzed past Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey. Flacco and Smith connected again for a 32-yard strike just before halftime. And who could forget the 70-yard "Mile High Miracle?" In the Super Bowl, a 56-yard pass to Jones on the move was the start of a first-half rout.
The Ravens reshaped their wide receiver corps this offseason, but did it partly with the intention of becoming even more explosive.
They moved on from Anquan Boldin, who was clutch and strong but never known for his speed. Instead, they designated Jones as a starter, opted for a younger option in the slot (Tandon Doss) and turned to one of the fastest players on the team (Deonte Thompson).
"We have guys on the outside that can get deep, and we have to do our job and take those chances," Flacco said. "We probably haven't been taking as many as normal, and we probably haven't been as successful as we normally would be when we do."
The Ravens aren't failing for lack of trying. They have attempted 42 passes over 20 yards, tied for the fourth-most in the NFL. But they haven't made them count.
A lot of pieces go into it. The protection needs to hold off long enough to let routes develop, and that's been a struggle. The wide receivers need to get separation, which they haven't done consistently enough despite seeing a lot of single coverage. Then Flacco needs to hit them when given the window.
"There is no one thing that we can pinpoint. It's been something different all the time, as is with low-percentage throws," Smith said.
"[The offensive line has] opened up passing lanes for us, and as receivers, we have to go out there, get open and make the plays, and it's on Joe to go out there and make the throw. It's a collective team effort – our success and our struggles. It's on us to stay on the success side a little more often than the failure [side]."
Smith has had a breakout season and delivered 15 receptions of 20 or more yards, tied for the third-most in the league. But the other receivers haven't similarly delivered.
Jones has one catch of 20 yards or more and has caught just 17 passes for 160 yards and one touchdown. Rookie Marlon Brown is adjusting to being a big-time playmaker and has dropped a couple opportunities. He has three catches over 20 yards. Thompson flashed his potential with a nifty 33-yard catch in Buffalo, but has only 10 snags on the year.
Doss has made a big play in almost every game he's played in. He had a 24-yard catch against Buffalo, 40-yarder in Miami, 63-yarder against Green Bay, 22-yarder in Pittsburgh, and 23-yarder in Cleveland. He was in on 63 of 81 snaps in Chicago compared to 40 for Jones.
But it's not all on the wide receivers. There have been times when they've been open and Flacco has missed them. He missed a touchdown to Smith in Pittsburgh, threw a heave into traffic in Cleveland and was long on one against Cincinnati.
According to Pro Football Focus, Flacco has a quarterback rating of 36.2 on passes beyond 20 yards this season.
"That's kind of how we've been with every facet of our game this year," Flacco said. "We probably haven't quite done it as well as we should, where we have before."
Flacco doesn't feel like the Ravens should quit trying the deep game, however.
"We've got to go out there, and we've got to lay it on the line," he said. "And that's what we did last year. We let it all go, and we just played free."
This Sunday may be the time for the Ravens offense to break out.
The Jets have given up 10 passing plays of 40 yards or more this season. Last week, the Bills scored touchdowns on 34-yard and 43-yard passes. The week before, the Saints scored on a 51-yard pass.
While New York's run defense is ranked tops in the league, its secondary is allowing 250.8 passing yards per game (23rd in the NFL).
Jets Head Coach Rex Ryan has put his team on alert.
"We've given up more deep balls than I can remember. It's a bad year so far, but the year is not over," Ryan said.
"I think [the Ravens are] still obviously very effective at throwing the ball vertically down the field, and that's something on defense that's been our Achilles heel. We certainly have to do a good job of that. Joe can make all the throws – we know that. He's a special player, and he's proved that over and over."