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Everybody has wondered how quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens'offense will take the next step.
The answer is right in the stat book. Specifically, it's in the red zone.
A year after finishing sixth-worst in the league in red zone scoring percentage, the Ravens have made red zone efficiency a big priority thus far in training camp.
The Ravens have dedicated entire practice sessions to working in the red zone and their live 11-on-11 series' often start at the 20-yard line. Head Coach John Harbaugh* *said Baltimore has run more red zone drills this year than in his two previous seasons at the helm.
"Offenses are going to be able to move the ball a little bit more than they used to," Harbaugh said. "The game is going to move into the red zone more and more – it has – so, it becomes more critical. So, it's a very important part of it, and it's an area we need to be really good at."
Last year,the Ravens scored touchdowns 53 percent of the time they reached the red zone, ranking them 11th in the NFL.
But they came away with points (touchdowns or a field goal) only 77 percent of the time, leaving them ranked 27th in the league.
"The most important thing is, you've got to finish drives with points," Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron said. "Obviously seven is the priority, but any points give you momentum, gives our kicker a chance to get out there and knock them down inside the 20."
Part of the reason for Baltimore's troubles scoring once inside the 20-yard line is turnovers. The Ravens threw four interceptions and fumbled the ball twice (both were lost) in the red zone last season. Penalties, which Baltimore struggled with in 2009, can also drive a team out of the red zone. Missed field goals were also an issue near the start of last season.
As the signal-caller, Flacco obviously plays a large role as well. Flacco was at his best between the 20-yard lines, where he had a quarterback rating around 85. But when between the opponent's 1-yard line and 19-yard line, Flacco's rating dropped to 63.8.
"Things happen a little quicker down there, so you've just got to continue to work at it," Flacco said. "Obviously we're working at it a pretty good amount. We're trying to get better at it."
However, Cameron was adamant that the weight of improving Baltimore's red zone offense doesn't fall squarely on Flacco's shoulders. It takes a collective offensive effort to score points, he said.
After all, the Ravens' rushing attack's average yards per carry also dropped in the red zone, going from nearly five yards per carry between the opponent's 39 and 20 to 3.3 yards inside the 19-yard line.
The Ravens didn't make any offseason additions to their running attack. But they did add a few ideal red zone receiving targets.
Anquan Boldin is a physical receiver who works well in traffic and can turn short passes into good gains. Rookie tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta are each big targets (6-foot-4) with excellent hands. Donte' Stallworth's speed adds another dimension, but big, physical targets are quintessential in the tighter confines of the red zone.
"They're guys that you're not afraid to put the ball into a little traffic with and know they're going to come down with the ball," Flacco said. "If you get one-on-one and the guy doesn't have bad coverage, but he's got his back turned, you know you can give it to them and let them go get it."
Boldin, Dickson and Pitta – among the other returning offensive weapons – have looked strong in the red zone throughout training camp. Thursday's first preseason game will be the first true test.
"I think we're doing a pretty good job," Flacco said. "The defense is pretty good down there, but I think we're doing good too. We're scoring touchdowns and doing some good things."