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On Joe Flacco's Shoulders To Lead Ravens


It was Sunday before wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. even went down with a torn Achilles when linebacker Ray Lewis was preaching to the Ravens in the pre-game locker room.

"You still have a leader in Joe Flacco," Lewis said. "You've got to rally around him. You've got to get behind him."

At the very end of his speech, Lewis turned and looked at Flacco.

"Joe Flacco, lead your team," he said. "It's your fight."

Now without Smith, the Ravens' top offensive playmaker, it will be even more on Flacco's shoulders – even though he shrugs those shoulders when that notion is brought up.

The Ravens haven't invested much salary cap space in wide receivers, or used many high draft picks (before this season's first-round selections) because they have faith that Flacco can lift up and carry the offense.

Flacco has dealt with turnover and banged-up targets before, but the final eight games of this season may be his toughest test yet.

Flacco did it last Sunday against the Chargers. After Smith went down, he led a touchdown and field goal drives in the fourth quarter to pull out a 29-26 comeback victory. Flacco completed 25 of 37 passes for 319 yards and one touchdown.

Head Coach John Harbaugh took notice.

"Joe really had one of his best games. He carried us in so many ways," Harbaugh said Monday after watching the film. "Guys made plays, but Joe was the guy that made it happen. … That's what you hope Joe will do for you, and he did it."

Now the Ravens have to hope Flacco can keep up that pace.

At the same time, Flacco is wary of putting too much on his shoulders for the second half of the season. It wasn't too long ago that pundits suggested his high interception totals may be the result of pressing.

"I think the tendency might be to try to do – in the moment – try to do too much," Flacco said. "I think the biggest thing is just trying to stay within the rules and do what we can and just keep telling yourself, keep preaching to yourself, that's going to be the best for the team."

The silver lining of Smith's injury is that it happened during the bye week, giving the Ravens more time to adjust the offense to not having him on the field.

The Ravens practiced Tuesday and Wednesday this week, including in full pads on Wednesday. Flacco said the offense worked on some "easy ways to move the ball and get some quick hitters."

He said it's not simplifying the offense, but rather looking at ways to be better on third down, particularly in shorter-yard situations.

"We came out here this week and worked on some new things, trying to get ourselves some completions and get guys open in simple ways that everybody can react to and play fast with," Flacco said. "That's the biggest thing. We've got a young group. I think they're talented. We've just got to get better and better."

The Ravens' available wide receivers right now are Kamar Aiken, Chris Givens, Marlon Brown, Jeremy Ross, Joe Morgan and Jeremy Butler.

This season, they have a combined 53 catches for 633 yards and two touchdowns.

Smith had seven fewer catches, 37 more yards and one more touchdown than them this season – by himself. Give Smith a few years and he could probably match their career totals (282 receptions, 3,964 yards, 21 touchdowns).

To say that the loss of Smith is big is an understatement.

"It's tough to say how you handle it. It's a tough loss, obviously," Flacco said.

"He's a great player, he's a great teammate, great friend and all that. So, it's tough to lose him, but [we've] just got to move on and move forward. It's the hard truth about football. You've just got to move on and do what you can."

Flacco has had a revolving door of targets this season. He threw passes to just half of his receivers during training camp this summer as Givens, Ross and Morgan have all come from St. Louis, Detroit and New Orleans, respectively, since the opening* *53-man roster was set. Butler wasn't on that roster either.

On Wednesday, Flacco expressed that he still has confidence in the group, however, because they've already played together once without Smith. Smith sat out the Week 5 game against Cleveland due to microfractures in his back.

The Ravens offense put up 30 points against the Browns that day on Oct. 11. The receivers had a strong first half but faded in the second. Flacco finished 19-for-35 for 210 yards and one touchdown.

"I think everybody has done a great job of filling in," Flacco said. "And in that game, we didn't have a bad day. We were able to be pretty productive."

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