Burden of proof

Ravens' newly explosive offense faces rigorous tests ahead

Tough Opponents Defensive Rank

November 11, 2008|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

Averaging 33 1/2 points in their past four games - the most in the NFL during that span - the Ravens have shown they can be a potent offense.

Starting Sunday against the New York Giants, their offense can prove it should be mentioned among the top units in the league.

Over the next six games, the Ravens will face five defenses ranked in the top 11: the Giants (No. 3), Philadelphia Eagles (No. 9), Washington Redskins (No. 4), Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 1) and Dallas Cowboys (No. 11).

"It's going to be a huge challenge," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of going head-to-head with the Giants' defense.

The only criticism of the Ravens' offense these days is the competition it has faced.

The Ravens have increased their production each of the past four weeks - scoring 27, 29, 37 and 41 points - against some of the weaker defenses in the NFL. The past four defenses they've faced (the Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans) rank in the bottom half of the league.

But the Ravens aren't taking their progress for granted.

"We still can grow immensely," said quarterback Joe Flacco, who has six touchdown passes and no interceptions during the Ravens' four-game winning streak. "We're getting better and better each week. Our main goal is to improve each week and hit our stride where it counts the most."

The Ravens' offense isn't just reaching the end zone these days. It's reaching unprecedented heights.

Calculated changes - from quarterback to coordinator to philosophy - have transformed a long-laughable attack to a fearsome one.

No longer the sidekick to a vaunted defense, the Ravens' offense is striking downfield and in the red zone, scoring at least 27 points in four straight games for the first time in the team's 13-year history.

With coordinator Cam Cameron making all the right calls and Flacco making all the right plays, the Ravens have jumped from No. 28 to No. 12 in scoring in a four-week span.

The Ravens' offensive turnaround ranks as one of the biggest surprises in the NFL this season.

Under former coach Brian Billick, the Ravens' offense finished in the bottom half of the NFL in eight of nine seasons.

There were always scoring droughts, changes at quarterback and rumors of animosity from the traditionally strong defense.

Even when the Ravens hired Harbaugh, the prospects didn't seem any brighter because the team's starting quarterback (Steve McNair) abruptly retired in April and its almost-certain Hall of Fame offensive tackle (Jonathan Ogden) ended his career in June.

But a new quarterback and coaching staff have breathed new life into essentially the same offensive lineup (nine of this season's 11 starters played major roles last season) that struggled for years.

"The offense is starting to develop that attitude of 'We're not waiting on the defense,' " said wide receiver Derrick Mason, whose status is considered questionable after dislocating his left shoulder. "We understand that the defense is going to do what they need to do, but we can't wait on them. We've got to go out there and start scoring points."

Here are the three main reasons the Ravens are scoring more points:

Delivering the big play:: Perhaps the most frustrating part of the Ravens' offense over the years was its inability to go deep. Defenses could stack the box to stuff the running game because they never had to worry about the Ravens beating them over the top.

Now, the Ravens are making them pay. In the past four games, Flacco has thrown 12 passes of 20 yards or more, including touchdown throws of 70, 47, 43 and 28 yards. But here's the most impressive statistic: Flacco has connected with seven different receivers for big plays (Mason, Mark Clayton, Todd Heap, Demetrius Williams, Yamon Figurs, Willis McGahee and Ray Rice).

Limiting turnovers:: The greatest sign of Flacco's maturation has been his reducing his turnovers despite becoming more aggressive downfield. The first-round pick has not thrown an interception in four games, a streak of 112 passes.

The Ravens have followed Flacco's lead in limiting their mistakes. After turning the ball over 12 times in their first five games, the Ravens have had two lost fumbles and no interceptions in their past four. They have gone 29 straight drives without a turnover.

Cashing in in the red zone: : Remember when the red zone was called the "Matt Stover Zone"? Well, the Ravens aren't settling for field goals anymore.

Their offense has scored touchdowns on nine of its past 14 trips inside the 20-yard line, including all four times Sunday in Houston.

Efficient and electric, the Ravens' offense is now the one driving after years of being along for the ride.

GETTING OFFENSIVE

The Ravens and their next two opponents (the Giants and Eagles) are the NFL's highest-scoring teams over the past four games.

Team .................. Points ............ Avg.

Ravens ................ 134 .................. 33.5

Philadelphia ........ 124 .................. 31.0

N.Y. Giants .......... 121 ................... 30.3

RAVENS @GIANTS

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Ch. 13

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Giants by 6 1/2

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