Passing Potential

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If the preseason is any indication, the Ravens' passing attack will be much more prominent in 2009.

Baltimore led the AFC in preseason passing yards with 270.2 per game, as quarterbacks Joe FlaccoTroy Smith and John Beck attempted 148 total passes. Conversely, the Ravens ground game, which finished fourth in the NFL last year, turned in 107 rushes.

There are many factors signifying that the Ravens could be flying high coming off a campaign where they averaged only 175.5 passing yards each week.

Offseason additions like six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk and rookie right tackle Michael Oher have shored up holes in a young offensive line, something that has been evident in practice against an aggressive Ravens defense.

And coordinator Cam Cameron is more comfortable opening up his playbook to Flacco in their second year together. A more mature Flacco utilized the congested middle of the field much more in the preseason, which has yielded more completions to running backs.

"I would say it's all of it put together," said head coach John Harbaugh. "You add protection, and blitz pick-up has been really good. The fact that our defense gives us so much pressure in practice – our backs have done a good job of working from edge to edge and picking up secondary pressure. Young tackles have done a really nice job. Birk has been solid in the middle.

"Checkdowns, screens, combination routes over the middle of the field, all those things have made it better so far."

Fans will get to see if the Ravens' air show is for real this Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs, and it is anyone's guess as to which of Flacco's targets will show up.

Thirteen-year veteran Derrick Mason is the leader of Baltimore's receiving corps after racking up 80 catches for 1,037 yards in 2008. Flacco knows what he brings to the field.

But it seemed that each week, another player excelled. Kelley Washington and Demetrius Williams have each seen their moments to shine. In limited action over three games, Washington boasted five catches of 15 yards or more, including a 42-yarder against the Carolina Panthers. Williams led Baltimore with four receptions for 77 yards.

If Mark Clayton can fully recover from a hamstring injury that kept him out of all preseason contests by this weekend, the Ravens will have a full arsenal for the first time in a while.

"When you know what we're capable of, the potential and ability we have, not being a part of it is tough," Clayton said. "Before we set foot in training camp that was our goal, to be here in Baltimore and do something offensively that's never been done before. At this point we've got guys that are going to make plays. That's not going to stop. It will only get better as the season continues."

That list includes running back Ray Rice, as well. Rice worked hard on his hands this offseason, and it showed when he led all receivers with eight grabs for 67 yards in Charlotte. The Rutgers product gained all of those yards on short throws that he turned into respectable gains.

"I don't know how you could play the game today if you can't catch the football," Cameron said. "Defenses can stack the front against the run, [so] you better be able to throw it to those guys or they're not going to touch the football.

"There are certain teams that are going to take away [the pass] if you're not going to be able to run the football like you would like. So what's your next alternative? It's throw it to them."

The Ravens would be quick to add tight ends Todd Heap and L.J. Smith to the conversation, as both veterans have been solid pass-catchers in the past.

With Flacco spreading the ball around so much in the preseason, Mason doesn't necessarily expect to reach his output from last year – and that's fine with him.

He is hoping that Flacco's trust in the other receivers will lead to less of a defensive focus on him.

"I believe we have guys that are going to be much better this year than they were last year in this offense," Mason said. "I'm talking about skill guys. Whatever they need me to do – whatever role they want me to take – that's the role I'm going to have to take and play it. I've got Mark Clayton on the side of me, who is going to be great this year. You add Kelley and Demetrius – maybe I don't have 80 to 90 balls – but the production is going to be there, I figure.

"Those other guys are going to pick up the slack for me, whereas teams can't double-team me because they have to pay attention to the two or three guys."
The Ravens' penchant for passing will likely not light up the sky like the "Air Coryell" San Diego Chargers teams from the late 1970s and early 80s, but there is a chance they could accomplish something that – as Clayton said – has never been done before.

Baltimore has only topped 200 passing yards per game four times in the franchise's 13 seasons. The most recent was in 2006, when a Steve McNair unit tallied 214.7 passing yards per game.

A versatile three-headed rushing attack cannot be overlooked, but this year, there is as much promise for Baltimore's aerial attack as there has ever been. There have been many outside critics of the Ravens' receivers, running backs and tight ends included, but those suiting up on Sunday don't have any doubts.

"If you want to call us soft, so be it. If you want to overlook us, so be it," said a confident Mason. "This team will move the chains, and this team will score touchdowns."

On Thursday, BaltimoreRavens.com takes a look at the Ravens' defense and its transition to new coordinator Greg Mattison.

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