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Eisenberg: Ravens Offense Can Hang With The Best


Joe Flacco's late touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones was obviously the biggest surprise in the Ravens' playoff victory in Denver.

But almost as surprising, from a historical perspective, was that the Ravens won a playoff shootout with Peyton Manning. Their offense was potent enough to outscore one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, the likely league MVP this year.

Until recently, the Ravens were more likely to wear tutus than win a playoff shootout with such a high-end quarterback. They were a defensive-minded team for more than a decade, a team that won despite fielding an offense that didn't rank with the best.

But times are changing … finally … for real.

While the defense still contributes and has its moments, it is in more of a supporting role now , hoping to limit the damage and force turnovers, while the onus is on Flacco and the offense to deliver strikes, make plays and outscore whatever the defense allows.

They were up to the challenge in Denver, and they'll probably have to win another shootout when they face Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC title game Sunday. It isn't going to be a smash-mouth, low-scoring affair. The scoreboard will get a workout.

There have been times this season when it didn't seem the offense was capable of so much. It generated just nine points against Kansas City, went 30 minutes without a first down against Cleveland. A late-season power outage lasted so long I wrote "nothing has changed" and the injury-depleted defense still had to carry the load.

The organization was concerned enough to engineer a late-season offensive coordinator change, replacing Cam Cameron with Jim Caldwell. Uncertainty about the unit reigned right up until Saturday's kickoff.

But things look different now, after the Ravens set their single-game playoff scoring record in upsetting the Broncos. The pieces are coming together.

What has changed?

For starters, the line was reshuffled for the playoffs, with Bryant McKinnie coming off the bench to play left tackle, pushing Michael Oher to right tackle and Kelechi Osemele to left guard. Fans had called for that for weeks, but McKinnie was in a doghouse and then suffered a hip injury.

Whatever the rationale was for holding him out, the line is plainly better now that he's in. The O-linemen said so themselves after the Ravens' opening-round playoff win against Indianapolis, and on Saturday the Broncos' dangerous pass rushers barely touched Flacco while Ray Rice rushed for 130 yards. It's a huge difference.

The other changed variable is, of course, the coordinator. It's been five games now since Caldwell took over, enough of a sample size to start taking measurements. Yes, there are trends. The offense is averaging 72 more yards per game under Caldwell and 2.8 touchdowns per game as opposed to 2.46 under Cameron. Things are going in the right direction.

But the biggest change is in Flacco, who has thrown nine touchdowns and one interception and averaged almost 50 more passing yards per game under Caldwell if you toss out the meaningless regular season finale in which he barely played. His playoff quarterback rating is an astronomical 120.0.

Under Caldwell, Flacco is moving around more, rolling out, stepping up in the pocket, and targeting the middle of the field more. But Caldwell also is showing more patience with the running game, sticking with it even when it doesn't show immediate results. The overall run-pass balance feels more natural, one reason why deep passing routes are more open.

I'm not trying to pile on Cameron. To the contrary, the Ravens never would have beaten Denver without a big-shouldered passing game, and Cameron was the one who urged the unit in that direction philosophically over the years, forsaking the former smash-mouth mentality so much that he finally was fired at least partly because Rice didn't touch the ball enough.

You just can't win a Super Bowl anymore unless your offense can light it up, and while Cameron is gone, his fingerprints were on Saturday's win along with those of Caldwell, Flacco and others.

To reach the point where their offense could score 38 points against a top defense and oust an MVP quarterback, the Ravens traveled a twisting road, took their share of detours, crashed a few times. Sometimes, it was so painful you just wanted to look away.

But suddenly, lo and behold, they're there.

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