With Flacco and Rice, futures market already bringing return

November 03, 2008|By MIKE PRESTON | MIKE PRESTON,mike.preston@baltsun.com

CLEVELAND - The top two offensive players in the Ravens' future grew up yesterday.

Running back Ray Rice and quarterback Joe Flacco, both rookies, played their best games of the 2008 season. Of course, it came in a 37-27 win against the lowly Cleveland Browns, who blew a 14-point lead late in the third quarter at home.

But that's not the most important thing. What we saw were two kids operating in a bona fide NFL offense. We saw Flacco make plays and throw the ball deep. We finally saw him throw a couple of passes in the middle of the field into tight windows, a true sign of a real NFL quarterback.

We saw Rice start and take over the game for running back Willis McGahee. He played exceptionally well in an offense that is designed for an all-purpose running back, just as offensive coordinator Cam Cameron designed it for LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego a few years ago.

Welcome to the NFL, Joe Flacco and Ray Rice.

"Each week you take another step, you move on to another level," Flacco said. "Your confidence is always growing."

But it was different yesterday. In the previous seven games, the Ravens played it safe with Flacco. He threw curls and out patterns to the outside of the field. When the Ravens got inside the red zone, they pounded the ball instead of testing Flacco's arm on a short field.

But Flacco came out throwing to open the game as Cleveland tried to cram nine players near the line of scrimmage. And the Browns paid for it as Flacco went 17-for-29 for 248 yards and two touchdowns. He had no interceptions and finished with a quarterback rating of 109.6.

What was his best throw?

Was it the 47-yard touchdown to receiver Mark Clayton in the first quarter, or the one that Clayton dropped earlier when Flacco ripped it through two defenders? Or was it the one he winged to Clayton through the outstretched arms of linebacker Willie McGinest late in the first period?

Actually, the best came on a third-and-16 from the Ravens' 15 with 5:31 left in the third quarter and the Ravens down by 14. Flacco drilled one over the middle to Derrick Mason for a first down, which eventually led to a 1-yard touchdown run by Le'Ron McClain that started the comeback.

It must be said that the Browns have terrible cornerbacks, especially Brandon McDonald, who plays a lot like Ronald McDonald.

But Flacco still delivered the ball where it needed to be delivered.

Those downfield passes backed the Browns off the line of scrimmage, and once that happened, Rice ran wild. The youngster out of Rutgers finished with 154 rushing yards on 21 carries, including a 60-yard run in the fourth quarter. Rice also had three catches for 22 yards.

He played the role the Ravens envisioned for McGahee this season, one similar to Tomlinson's role in San Diego where he lines up almost anywhere to create mismatches.

"They call you a backup, but when it's your turn, you have to have a starter's mentality," Rice said. "This is a tough offense to learn because you have to learn to line up as a running back, play in the slot and learn the protections."

Over the past three weeks, you could see the confidence grow in Rice. It started two weeks ago when he returned kickoffs against the Miami Dolphins and last week when he became a good third-down receiver against the Oakland Raiders. And then came yesterday, when he was a total package.

Rice's development allowed the Ravens to rest a beaten-up McGahee. Between sessions, Rice went to McGahee for advice.

"I talk to him a lot, seeing what he was seeing, what I was missing," Rice said.

Rice wasn't missing much, and neither were the Ravens with McGahee on the sideline. The Ravens now have the option of resting McGahee for an additional week against the Texans next week in Houston.

The offense responded well with Rice yesterday, and the Ravens added another dimension with the long ball. Cameron has taken it slow with the development of Flacco, but that wasn't a concern yesterday.

The offense grew up. There were few trick plays, and the Ravens weren't using a lot of deception. They opened up the offense, and that's what they're going to have to do to be successful when they start playing really good teams.

The Browns aren't a good team, but they presented a nice opportunity for the Ravens to overcome some growing pains. Rice and Flacco took advantage - and took their games to new levels.

You can listen to Mike Preston on Mondays from 4 to 6 p.m. on Fox Sports (1370 AM).

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