Late For Work 12/5: Checking In On Joe Flacco's Elite Status After Record Day

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Checking In On Flacco's Elite Status After Record Day

"January Joe" showed up a month early, folks.

"December Joe" was just as impressive and in complete control Sunday in the Ravens' 38-6 win over the Miami Dolphins, setting franchise records with 36 completions, season highs with 381 passing yards and a 119.2 QB rating, and throwing a whopping four touchdown passes.

He sat back and carved up the Dolphins defense like it was turkey on Thanksgiving day. And remember, it was the league's ninth-ranked pass defense.

"The Ravens made the Dolphins, one of the hottest teams in the NFL, look like the Cleveland Browns. Why? Flacco went on a tear," wrote ESPN's Jamison Hensley.

It was easily Flacco's best game of the season, and was enough for him to be declared the Offensive Player of the Week by TheMMQB.com's Peter King and earn the highest offensive grade of the game by Pro Football Focus (PFF).

He was so good that he was pulled from the game with nine minutes, 46 seconds remaining.

Now would be a good time to check in on the never-ending chatter about Flacco's "elite" status.

Okay, okay. Let's not get *too *carried away.

It was one elite game, which doesn't erase all the tough performances Flacco has turned in this season. But it was a reminder of how dangerous Flacco can be, and if he rolls this performance into the rest of December and January, watch out.

"Projecting Flacco's performance Sunday against the Dolphins onto January is very presumptuous, since the Ravens have to get to the playoffs first," wrote SportingNews.com's David Steele. "Still, Flacco played like he could smell the postseason coming on the first Sunday of December.

"They finally moved the ball the way they expected when they added the pieces they did last offseason, and they didn't keep dumping the load on its perpetually-burdened defense and on [Justin] Tucker's field-goal streak. The main reason was Flacco — who, again, looked like January Joe, and like the December/January Joe everyone's gotten to know."

In case you've forgotten, January Joe is the guy who's gone 10-5 in his playoff career. He's the guy who threw 11 touchdowns to zero interceptions in the Ravens' Super Bowl XLVII run. He's also the guy who has never been afraid to go into Foxboro in the postseason and match the performances of future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, including in the 2011 and 2012 AFC title games.

Those memories are becoming clear again as the Ravens prepare to visit the New England Patriots next week. That's why it's so tempting to read more into Flacco's breakout performance of the season.

The next four games (at New England, vs. Philadelphia, at Pittsburgh and at Cincinnati) will give us a better indication of whether this was a reset for the Ravens offense and the re-emergence of January Joe, or just a one-game wonder.

"The Ravens have the NFL's No. 2 defense and best kicker in Tucker," wrote Hensley. "If Flacco can continue to play anywhere close to this level, the Ravens can put together a bigger playoff run than anyone expected."

"If Flacco gets hot in December, he's good enough to carry the Ravens to the playoffs, whether you think he's elite or not," added CSNMidAtlantic.com's Clifton Brown.

Where Has This Offense Been? A 'Fiery Exchange' Between Flacco & Mornhinweg Set Stage

Who or what was that?

The Ravens offense averaged just above 19 points per game heading into the Dolphins game, then suddenly, *BOOM!, *it rattled off 38 points. Sunday's 32-point margin of victory was the third-biggest under Head Coach John Harbaugh.

And it's not like Baltimore simply took advantage of a weak team. Miami was one of the hottest squads in the league, riding a six-game winning streak.

So everyone wants to know where this offense came from.

The Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec says a "fiery exchange" in a quarterback meeting between Flacco and Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg set the stage for the explosion.

"The impetus behind the Ravens' best offensive performance all season came in a meeting room when the players returned to work last Tuesday," wrote Zrebiec.

After last Sunday's game, in which the Ravens took a 16-3 lead over the Cincinnati Bengals only to barely hold on with a defensive sack/strip, Flacco said the offense got too "conservative." The following Thursday, Mornhinweg said he hated his name being used with that word.

"Mornhinweg stood his ground with Flacco during a quarterback meeting as the Ravens reviewed the Bengals game and began preparations for the Miami Dolphins," wrote Zrebiec. "Flacco reiterated his criticism to Mornhinweg, believing if the Ravens were going anywhere this season, they needed to open up the offense. The two stubborn men went back-and-forth, amusing the other people in the meeting."

The details of the conversation are unknown, but what we do know is that it led to the most aggressive offensive game we've seen all season. The Ravens went up early and didn't try to milk the clock once they were up. They went for the jugular, and continued to score points.

"One thing Marty has never been accused of is being conservative – that's not a label he takes too kindly to, as Joe can probably attest," Harbaugh told reporters after the win. "They had a little back-and-forth in one of the quarterback meetings – that was fun to watch. I heard about it; I didn't actually witness it. But, that's what I think. Iron sharpens iron. … I thought Marty just had a phenomenal game. Coaches deserve a lot of credit."

"When you have the quarterback saying this is what he likes, he's putting it on his back, so that's what you want," added wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. "We go as he goes, and so when he does a great job, we all look better."

Any Concern Over Run-Pass Imbalance Sunday?

While the Ravens finished with 110 rushing yards and a very effective 6.6 yards per carry from Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon, the offense had an imbalanced run-pass ratio.

Baltimore ran the ball 20 times, but three of those came from quarterback Ryan Mallett. NFL.com pointed out that when the Ravens were up 24-0 late in the third quarter, they had only called six tailback rushes compared to Flacco's 40 passes.

Usually that type of ratio ushers in complaints from all around Baltimore, but it was hard to fuss after putting up 38 points.

The question going forward is whether the Ravens can continue to succeed without giving more opportunities to its ground game.

"The Ravens' ongoing dereliction of the running game is truly baffling," wrote NFL.com's Chris Wesseling. "Marc Trestman was fired in early October due in large part to his lack of interest in the ground attack. … Mornhinweg has shown no more inclination to establish a balanced offense. …  If Mornhinweg doesn't start trusting his backfield duo in December, it's going to haunt him in January – provided his team keeps playing well enough to reach the postseason."

SportsIllustrated.com's Chris Burke disagrees.

"The Ravens would love to feature a balanced attack, with a grind-it-out run game to complement their dominant run defense," Burke wrote. "They have not been able to find that offensive element yet, and the season has grown quite old. Their more realistic shot of continuing to make noise could come with a game plan that looks like Sunday's. When the Ravens get an early jump and Flacco is playing well, Baltimore doesn't necessarily need its run game to put its opponents on ice."

Webb Makes Top-Five Catch Of Week; Defense Overshadowed

There were some pretty impressive catches on Sunday.

See Kamar Aiken's acrobatic, juggling grab, Dennis Pitta holding onto a touchdown pass despite two big hits and Breshad Perriman's 53-yard catch and run.

But perhaps the best snag of the game didn't even come on offense.

Safety Lardarius Webb made the NFL Network's top-five catches of the week list with an interception of Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the end zone. Webb seemingly came out of nowhere to help cornerback Jerraud Powers and nab the pick. He was hurt on the play after he collided with big-bodied wide receiver DeVante Parker and hit the ground hard, but held onto the ball.

"I think one of the plays that was one of the most exciting plays … was Lardarius Webb's interception," Harbaugh told CSNMidAtlantic.com's Brent Harris. "I mean, he covered so much ground. It was such an athletic play. That's the vision you have for him as a safety, and to see that happen in the way it did, it's just outstanding."

The defense was overshadowed by the offensive breakout in part because the unit has been stout all season long. It continued that streak by nearly pitching a shutout if it weren't for Pitta's fumble that gave the Dolphins the ball at the 8-yard line.

It has come to be expected, but it shouldn't be taken for granted.

Tannehill had only thrown one interception to nine touchdowns in Miami's six-game winning stretch. The Ravens secondary forced three picks, and allowed one touchdown.

"With [Jimmy] Smith's return, the secondary had its top three cornerbacks in Smith, rookie Tavon Young and Powers," wrote The Sun's Edward Lee. "It also meant that Webb would not have to shift to nickel back and Matt Elam would not have to spell Webb at free safety."

Then, the Ravens' top-ranked rush defense contained the hottest back coming into the game in Jay Ajayi, who was held to 61 rushing yards. The ESPN Stats & Info graphic below breaks down how that compared to Ajayi's previous six games.

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Why Suggs? Why?

The next time Terrell Suggs is on podium, a question must be asked about … whatever this is …

I don't remember seeing it live, but per BaltimoreBeatdown.com, it came after a holding penalty on the Dolphins offensive line that took Terrell Suggs to the turf and ripped off his helmet.

For some reason, Suggs started crawling around on the field on all fours and made interesting faces with his tongue out. I assume it was supposed to be some sort of animalistic intimidation tactic? I don't know.

Pitta On Track To Put Up Best Season Of Career

Flacco joked about not caring what his good buddy Pitta has been though over the last several years with two hip surgeries. Flacco's just happy his top tight end is back on the field and scoring touchdowns.

Flacco doesn't care what Pitta has been through.  pic.twitter.com/9lNc8Z0pdt — Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) December 4, 2016

You have to love the way these two guys joke with each other, but on a serious note, Pitta has been through so much physically that many thought his career would be over.

Not only did Pitta score his first touchdown (and followed it up with another) in 1,092 days, but he could turn in the best season of his career, even better than the Ravens' Super Bowl year. Pitta leads the Ravens with 61 receptions, is third on the team with 529 yards and fourth with the two touchdowns.

"With four games left in the regular season, Pitta could exceed the numbers he posted in 2012, when he caught 61 passes for 669 yards and seven scores," wrote Lee.

Patriots Will Try To Knock Ravens Back Down To Earth

While we're talking about January Joe and the offensive breakout, a long-time rival would love nothing more than to spoil the celebration next week.

"Listen to [the] national discussion this week, and you're going to hear a lot of people say, 'You know what team I wouldn't want to run into? The Ravens,'" wrote The Baltimore Sun's Mark Selig. "The offense has to keep it up, lest this quality performance remains an outlier. A Monday Night Football game at New England next week should tell us a lot about how far the Ravens have come."

"Some fans might think this is a sign that the Ravens are playoff-bound already, but the New England Patriots might have something to say about that," added his colleague, Lee.

Final PFF Grades For Offense And Defense

We witnessed the Ravens' most complete game in all three phases, so it means something when you lead the team in grades.

Below are the PFF top-five grades on offense and defense this week:

Top offensive grades:

QB Joe Flacco, 81.9

G Marshal Yanda, 80.4

RB Terrance West, 78

TE Dennis Pitta, 76.1

C Jeremy Zuttah, 74.2

Top defensive grades:

CB Tavon Young, 91.7

S Lardarius Webb, 81.3

OLB Terrell Suggs, 80.8

DE Brent Urban, 79.6        

S Eric Weddle, 79.6

Quick Hits

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