It's time for payoff in passing game

The club invested heavily in receiving targets for Kyle Boller, aiming to balance the offense and accelerate the quarterback's development

September 08, 2005|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

To feel the full effect of the Ravens' offensive makeover, it's best to look at it from Kyle Boller's perspective from last year to this one.

The wide receiver to his right has gone from a former quarterback out of Grambling (Randy Hymes) to a 90-plus-catch Pro Bowl performer (Derrick Mason).

His teammate in the slot has gone from a possession receiver (Kevin Johnson) to a potential playmaker (Mark Clayton).

His tight end has gone from a former probation officer (Darnell Dinkins) to an elite target (Todd Heap).

Now, the expectation is, Boller will go from an inconsistent quarterback to a legitimate one.

He has the experience, having started 25 games the past two seasons. He has the coaching, working under quarterback guru Jim Fassel since last season.

And after an expensive offseason, he has the supporting cast. The Ravens invested more than $30 million in bonuses to sign Mason, draft Clayton and extend Heap's contract. The time has come to reap the dividends.

"It's on my shoulders," Boller said. "It's my job to get the ball into their hands."

Mason led all wide receivers with 96 receptions last season and caught an NFL-best 70 percent of the passes thrown his way.

Clayton is considered the most polished receiver in this year's draft and made some dynamic moves in the open field during the preseason.

Heap, Boller's favorite target who was limited to six games last season, is running at full speed again after offseason ankle and shoulder surgeries.

If all goes according to the Ravens' plan, this new-look attack will lift the passing game from the bottom of the NFL rankings for the first time under Boller.

"It's a world of difference from last season," coach Brian Billick said. "Hence, the expectations are different as well."

Defenses have approached the Ravens the same way for years: take away the run and make them beat you with the pass. With Jamal Lewis carrying one of the NFL's most dominant run games, teams stack the line of scrimmage and dare the Ravens to throw.

That's why the Ravens have to give the passing game some punch, a big-play combination that has been so desperately lacking.

Billick estimates that an offense needs to generate a big play in the passing game (25 or more yards) once every 10 throws. The upper-echelon teams average more than 50 big plays each season, while the Ravens produced about half that many.

The disparity isn't from throwing the ball deep downfield - the Ravens do that as often as most teams - but from turning short passes into big gains. The Ravens have ranked last in yards after the catch the past two seasons.

Playbook tweaks

To create more big plays, Fassel hasn't had to rewrite the playbook in his first season as offensive coordinator. He's just had to tweak it.

Fassel has incorporated more quick passes and more shallow crossing routes, where the receiver is running toward the defenders, giving him a better chance to make a move on them. There are fewer comeback patterns, where the receiver works back toward the quarterback and needs to turn upfield for more yards.

"If you're a team that generates yards after the catch, you have athletes," Billick said. "Do we have the chance of having those yards after the catch now with a Derrick Mason, a Mark Clayton and the return of a Todd Heap? Yeah, we're fairly optimistic."

Fassel noticed the difference immediately during the offseason camps, when the receivers ran some quick seam routes.

These routes have great potential for yards after the catch because they isolate a receiver with a defender over the middle. The receiver needs to make a fast move to elude the tackler and scoot upfield.

"We coached hard on that last year to get that thing in," said Fassel, who was a consultant for the Ravens last season. "Right now, with Derrick and Mark running that thing, it looks a lot better real fast. I joked, `Boy, we just got a lot smarter coaching.' "

Still, the Ravens believe, the play-calling is not in Fassel's hands. It's in Boller's.

He needs to be more accurate to increase his completion rate from 55.6 percent to 60 percent. He needs to make better decisions to limit interceptions.

"I told Kyle 100 times, my favorite call is to give you two or three guys out of here, over the top and deep down the middle," Fassel said. "I told him, `You build confidence in my play-calling, then I'll keep calling them.' "

Preseason problems

Judging by the preseason, the makeover with Boller has not gone as planned.

He has rushed his mechanics at times and too often forced throws into coverage. The result in six quarters of work this preseason: five turnovers and two touchdown passes.

"There have been struggles, which I expected," Fassel said. "Not being unrealistic about things, there have been times when he hasn't played well. There have been other times when he has done some really nice things."

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