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Eisenberg: We Have to Wait Until September for Real Proof of a Revitalized Deep Passing Game

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As you may have heard, the Ravens’ quarterbacks threw a whole batch of rainbow-like deep passes at last week’s open-to-the-media Organized Team Activity practice. Quite a few were caught.

In fact, Joe Flacco and his fellow passers attempted and completed so many long balls that Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said it became a real-time topic of conversation on the field.

“Someone kind of joked in my ear (that) we made and completed more deep balls in practice today than we did the whole offseason last year,” Harbaugh told reporters after practice. He later added, “I feel like that has to be a big part of who we are.”

I’m sure many Ravens fans were delighted to hear the deep passing game is showing promise and Harbaugh envisions it as a “big part” of the 2018 offense, which would constitute quite a reversal from last season. Its potential certainly was evident as Flacco tossed downfield strikes to speedy receivers such as John Brown and Chris Moore last week.

But some parts of a deep passing game can shine on a practice field in the spring, and others, well, you won’t know if they exist until the regular season. In the Ravens’ case, we’ll have to wait and see if there’s buy-in at the play-calling level.

Sorry if this sounds like something Yogi Berra might have said, but to have a productive deep passing game, you have to attempt deep passes. No NFL team attempted fewer last season than the Ravens, according to Pro Football Focus.

The analytic website tracked the performances of quarterbacks on pass attempts traveling 20 or more yards. Of the 23 quarterbacks measured, Flacco had the fewest attempts by far. He tossed 47 deep balls, slightly less than three per contest. Every other quarterback attempted at least 53. Most surpassed 60. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger attempted 88. The league leader, the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, attempted 91.

Other metrics reflect the Ravens’ reluctance to attempt deep passes last season. NFL NextGen Stats tracked the “average intended air yards” of every pass attempt – basically, how far the quarterback expected the ball to travel when he threw it. Only one quarterback out of the 42 who were measured averaged fewer yards per attempt than Flacco.

These figures stand in stark contrast to a long-held perception, widely accepted in the national media, that Flacco is one of the NFL’s most prolific deep throwers. That was true earlier in his career, but in the West Coast-style offense the Ravens now employ, with Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg calling the plays, Flacco kept it extremely short last year.

No doubt, several extenuating circumstances contributed to that trend. The Ravens were determined to re-boot their rushing game after it faltered so badly the year before; that resulted in fewer pass attempts, period. Flacco missed all of training camp and the preseason with a back injury, the effects of which lingered well into the season. His receivers struggled to gain consistent separation, turning possible deep balls into checkdowns.

Also a factor, quite possibly, was Flacco simply wasn’t that effective when he did air it out. His 52.7 passer rating on attempts of 20 or more yards was the fourth-lowest among the 23 quarterbacks PFF measured. Only Jay Cutler, DeShone Kizer and Eli Manning rated lower.

It’s a new year, though, and the Ravens are dealing with new circumstances on offense. As many media observers have noted, Flacco is looking healthy and sharp in practice. The near-complete overhaul of his receiving corps has yielded veterans Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead IV, who are adept at gaining separation, and also Brown, a bona fide home-run hitter when healthy.

The building blocks of a better deep passing game appear to be in place. The big question is whether the Ravens really will give it a shot in the fall. As with their ground game in 2017, will they focus on revitalizing what used to be one of their signature offensive elements?

If last week’s OTA practice is any measure, they’re working on it. But we’ll have to wait until September for the real proof.

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