A year ago, the Ravens struggled to find an offensive identity, especially early in the season. Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron was second-guessed even more than usual, which is saying something, because even when things are slow, he absorbs as many shots as a politician in a close election.
The problem was a tug of war of sorts going on. Joe Flacco was maturing, in his fourth season, and wanted the offense to join the NFL's bombs-away passing parade. So did Cameron, to an extent. Actually, the entire organization wanted the offense to become more explosive, because, well, it needed to be. But the problem was there were games when Ray Rice became lost in that shuffle.
After a November loss in Seattle in which Flacco attempted 52 passes and Rice attempted just five rushes, the situation calmed down. Cameron found a sweet spot. The right blend of Flacco and Rice sounds like a recipe for a protein shake, but it actually was a healthy offensive blueprint that carried the Ravens to within sniffing distance of a trip to the Super Bowl.
A year later, Cameron and his unit are again in the process of figuring out an identity.
Flacco, now in year five, has progressed to the point that he can dominate games, and his array of targets includes a pair of athletic tight ends, a pair of super-speedy wideouts and a veteran who can work the seams. The passing game has blossomed, just as the organization desired, but Rice just signed a big contract and he's still the best playmaker in the huddle, so you can't forget to hand him the ball.
It's a jarring prospect after watching the offense struggle for years, but the Ravens have to figure out how to best deploy their many weapons. What's the right blend of Flacco and Rice in 2012?
I would submit that the recipe Cameron used in Sunday night's win over the Patriots was pretty close to the sweet spot.
Flacco was on target, aggressive-minded and continually put up passes to let his receivers make plays, which they do well. It was close to a bombs-away approach, with Flacco completing 28 of 39 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns. The Patriots were devastated with chunk plays, yet Rice also had 20 carries and 25 overall touches, so the ball was in his hands the right amount, and his 150 total yards put the offense over the top.
Since telling Cameron what to do is pretty much the national pastime around here, my suggestion is the Ravens take a picture of that game plan, frame it and hang it on a wall. That's exactly what they should want going forward.
Rice didn't get enough touches in the team's first two games because he wasn't needed in the opener and the old bugaboo about forgetting the running game arose to an extent in Week 2, but Week 3 was spot on. Whether the run opened up the pass or the pass opened up the run is debatable, but who cares? The Patriots had to pay heed to both elements and couldn't handle it. The Ravens rolled up more than 500 yards of offense in coming from behind to win.
Cameron is still going to hear catcalls whenever things don't go exactly right – pretty tough standard, huh? But it might be time to start examining the examiners. Through three games, the Ravens rank second in the league in scoring and fourth in total offense. Apparently, they do have a clue.
In an upbeat Monday postmortem, Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh conceded that the effective run-pass balance against the Patriots was "a good thing," but warned not to expect it to be reprised every week. The opposing defense's philosophy and the flow of the game (i.e., whether the Ravens are ahead or behind) can impact that balance, he said.
That's all understood, as is the need to keep opponents guessing and not just give away what you intend to do.
But one way or another, the Ravens shouldn't stray too far from the sweet spot they discovered Sunday night.