As Gerry Sandusky and I have been doing all preseason on our game telecasts, we will continue to carry on the metaphor of these games being similar a classic three-act play.
In the first act, we introduced you to the new cast of characters such as rookies Jaylen Hill, Tyus Bowser and Marlon Humphrey, as well as reacquainted you with veterans you all know and love.
As is the case in the tradition in a three-part play, in the second act, preseason game No. 2 against Miami, we discovered a couple of obstacles this team would need to overcome before the kickoff of the regular season. I wrote about some of those obstacles here last week; the comfort level with Ryan Mallett as a competent backup and the ever-changing depth chart of the offensive line.
In Week 3 against the Bills, we will dive deeper into those obstacles to find any resolution the team is working on, and to start to tie a bow around what we think this team will look like when the final curtain closes.
As was the case after Week 1, Mallett did nothing to alarm the coaching staff and front office alike. His performance was very much the same last week in Miami – albeit with additional weapons in Jeremy Maclin, Mike Wallace and Danny Woodhead in the huddle with him. Mallett improved his completion percentage from 50 percent in Week 1 to a respectable 60 percent in Week 2, but the biggest difference was turnovers, something this team with have little patience for come September.
Against Washington, the Ravens offense had zero turnovers, but last week in Miami, Mallett threw two interceptions and luckily none of the three fumbles (Mike Wallace, Terrance West and Josh Woodrum) actually resulted in turnovers. This leads to a bigger conundrum for this offense, and specifically Mallett, heading into Week 3 because they must get back to protecting the football, but at the same time need to be more explosive down the field.
I have long been an advocate, going back to my days as offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings, of what I have now come to call the Toxic Differential. This is a comprehensive statistic that not only accounts for the turnover differential, but also combines it with the team's willingness to take shots down the field. In other words, it's simply not enough to just eliminate turnovers on offense if you also aren't willing to take the risk of pushing the ball down the field for chunk yardage plays.
And this is where the Ravens offense, again, specifically under Mallett, needs to find its identity. In his turnover-free outing in Week 1, Mallett attempted 18 passes but only threw for 58 yards – an average of 3.2 yards per attempt. Last week, Mallett tried to push the ball down the field, with 113 yards on 22 attempts, an average of over 5 yards per attempt, but in doing so, added the two turnovers. So in Week 3, we need to see Mallett find the balance between the two, connect on some big plays but also continue to eliminate, or at least limit, the turnovers in the process. Even with Joe Flacco, I see this balance as being the key to the Ravens' offensive success in 2017.
There is one other telltale stat, other than turnovers and explosive plays, that keeps offensive coordinators awake at night, and I can assure you that Marty Mornhinweg is paying close attention to. And that is third-down conversions.
This is an area that showed significant improvement from Week 1 to Week 2 this preseason. Against Washington, the Ravens were 5-for-15 on third-down conversions with Mallet completing converting just 1 of 7 in which he dropped back for a pass (not counting a third-down pass interference penalty that resulted in an automatic first down). Last week against the Dolphins, the Ravens went better than 50 percent with nine conversions in 17 attempts. That is a ratio that the Ravens can be very pleased with and use as a positive to build upon.
Last week in Miami, we were also introduced to Woodhead and Maclin as they suited up in the purple and black for the first time. It was a glimpse into a skill position group that may be the most diverse and dangerous that Flacco has had in his career … with one big if. IF they can stay healthy.
Breshad Perriman continues to nurse an injury and Woodhead was nicked up in Miami and is unlikely to play this weekend. But even still, based on what limited action we did see from this group, we can start to envision how this offense will look in 2017. Woodhead finished the game with only one carry, but was targeted out of the backfield three times, and that is exactly what his role will be in this offense, a pass catcher more so than as a runner. For Maclin, he finished with just one catch on one target, but it was the diversity in alignment that was fun to see for me. He lined up out wide (opposite Wallace), in the slot, in tight bunch, and even motioned in tight as a flex player at the point of attack near the line of scrimmage. It will be fun to see how they continue to develop Maclin's role and fit within this offense once Flacco is under center and they have the whole playbook at their disposal.
Once Perriman is back, this is a group of pass catchers that can complement one another very soundly on the field. I have equated what I want in a wide receiver group to that of a basketball team in terms of skillsets. For example, Perriman can be the above the rim type player that can make the dazzling plays while Maclin can be the consistent spot-up man that you can always rely on to make the routine play. Woodhead acts as the underneath player, or point guard, that dictates where the ball might be thrown, while Wallace is the home run threat that can hurt a defense from any point on the court. Flacco is going to really enjoy having this entire complement of players together upon his return. But again, this is a group that first must get healthy before we are going to be able to fully witness its entire potential.
Come Saturday night, during the pregame show and the live broadcast, we will also be taking yet another look at the offensive line that may very well send out its third combination of starters in just as many weeks. It actually looks a lot better on tape than some of the numbers suggest. We will also move to the defensive side of the ball and breakdown how Kamalei Correa improved from Week 1 to Week 2 and how Lardarius Webb's versatility in the back half may become the x-factor of a defense on the verge of something special.
As always, be sure to interact with us live on Saturday night using #Ravensbooth or follow me on Twitter and Facebook: @CoachBillick. We will be answering some of your questions during the game.