As 'D' Deflates, Loftier Air Game Is No Passing Fancy

November 01, 2009|By Peter Schmuck

It's tempting to look back over the first six games of the season and wax nostalgic for the Ravens' defense of old, but it might make more sense to be grateful that coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron seemed to realize from the outset that the offense had to take center stage.

Nobody came right out and said that at the time, and nobody is going to admit that now. The company line held that defensive coordinator Greg Mattison would pick up right where Rex Ryan left off and there would be sufficient depth to overcome the loss of Bart Scott, Jim Leonard and - most likely - Samari Rolle.

Maybe this was a case in which the coaching staff hoped for the best and prepared for the worst, but it seems obvious in retrospect that the Ravens quickly evolved into a decidedly pass-first team for a reason.

Think about it. This team thrived last year with a three-headed running game that provided lots of cover for rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and a typical Ravens defensive unit that put pressure on the opposing quarterback and delivered a lot of big plays in the secondary.

Do you think it was just a coincidence that Flacco came out flinging in the preseason and never looked back? Do you think the Ravens just decided that they didn't need the 2,027 yards they got from Le'Ron McClain, Willis McGahee and Ray Rice last season?

The Ravens ranked fourth in the NFL last season with 149 rushing yards per game and held the ball for an average of 33 minutes. They ranked 28th last year in passing offense, so it's certainly logical that they would want to improve dramatically in that area, but not at this much expense to the running game.

Throw in the fact that scoring points was not a big problem last year (24 per game), and you might have expected the Ravens to come into the 2009 season looking for a fairly subtle shift in favor of the passing game. That's to reflect the growth of quarterback Joe Flacco and to increase the scoring potential against the great defensive teams that figure to obstruct their path to the Super Bowl.

And maybe that's what would have happened if this season's Ravens defense were anywhere close to being on par with the one that held nine teams to 10 points or fewer last year and 12 teams under 14 (including the postseason).

Sure, it's Cameron's nature to open up the offense to whatever extent reasonable. And he continues to explain away the shift to a clearly dominant passing offense as the combined result of Flacco's quick development as a solid pocket passer and the recent league-wide success of the best passing teams.

That all makes perfect sense, but I think it's still fair to conclude that the Ravens' brain trust had a pretty good idea that the defense would not be holding opponents to 15 points per game this year.

So far, opponents are scoring nearly 22 points per game - almost a 50 percent increase over the 2008 game average - and the Ravens are just 3-3 despite averaging 28 points.

It's possible to make the case that the Broncos, who will put their undefeated record on the line at M&T Bank Stadium this afternoon, look a whole lot more like the classic Ravens teams of old than this season's Ravens team does.

The Broncos feature a far more balanced run-pass ratio, and they are undefeated because their defense has allowed a league-low 66 points in six games. They haven't scored nearly as many points as the Ravens, but their point differential (the difference between points for and against) ranks fourth among the 32 NFL teams.

Perhaps that will make Ravens fans pine for their stifling defenses of the past. But it should also make them appreciate the way the team has transformed itself into a scoring machine (28.2 ppg) that ranks third in the AFC and is almost on par with the Indianapolis Colts (29.8) and New England Patriots (29.3).

Harbaugh and Cameron clearly knew what they were doing when they unleashed Air Flacco at the start of the season. That was the only way to compensate for an inevitable defensive decline that has put the Ravens' playoff potential in serious question.

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "Sportsline" on WBAL (1090 AM), and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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