At this point last season, Joe Flacco looked like a veteran quarterback in leading the Ravens to an improbable playoff run.
Now, 31 games into his NFL career, Flacco resembles a young quarterback struggling through some difficult growing pains in the Ravens' 6-6 season.
Have NFL defenses seen enough film to catch up to him? Are injuries slowing him down? Or has the Ravens' supporting cast let him down?
Judging by most of the Ravens' answers, it seems like you can check all of the above.
"I think there are a lot of explanations," coach John Harbaugh said. "There are a lot of little things that go play by play. The bottom line is Joe can play better and we can play better around Joe in the passing game."
This is a complete reversal for Flacco from his rookie season, when he started slowly only to finish strong.
This year, he put up Pro Bowl numbers in his first seven games, completing 66 percent of his passes and averaging 264.1 passing yards per game. He threw 12 touchdown passes and five interceptions.
Flacco's downward spiral has occurred over his past five games, in which his completion rate has dipped to 58.9 percent and his passing yards per game have dropped to 206.4. He has thrown two touchdown passes and six interceptions.
"If you look at some of these games, if we would have won, nobody would be saying a lot of this stuff," Flacco said. "The bottom line is we haven't. We haven't done a good enough job. That's what we'll have to live with. We have to make sure we take care of business the next four games."
The sophomore slump isn't unique to Flacco. Before getting injured, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan failed to live up to expectations in his second season (16 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions and an 80.0 rating).
Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason explained Flacco's lack of production recently as "a combination of everything," including the 10 players who line up around him.
"The quarterback doesn't shoulder the blame for every play," he said. "Everybody has to be on the same page, and sometimes it doesn't happen. When we're winning, then the quarterback is great. When we're losing, everyone wants to point to the quarterback. Us as a team, we've got to get it corrected."
Flacco's worst game of the season came Monday, when he completed 41 percent of his passes and threw three interceptions. His most troubling throw was on a second-and-goal play in the fourth quarter, when the Ravens trailed by 10 points. Rolling to his right, he threw across his body into the middle of the end zone, where the pass was intercepted.
"I don't think you ever tell Joe to never, ever try to make a play," Harbaugh said. "But that particular throw, I would say never."
Harbaugh added: "Joe is a playmaker. He's got tremendous ability, and we want him to make plays within the framework of the offense."
Defenses catching up?
When a young quarterback struggles, some observers say it's the result of defenses being more prepared for him. More games played means more film for defensive coordinators to dissect tendencies and weaknesses.
Asked whether defenses are doing anything different from the beginning of the season, Flacco said: "I think they're trying to disguise a little bit of what they do in the secondary, to some extent. They're playing their defenses. We've played some good teams. They've done a good job. We've done a good job."
Flacco is correct about the level of competition. Over the past three weeks, the Ravens have faced the top-ranked defense at the time twice (Pittsburgh and Green Bay) as well as the league's No. 1 defense in fewest points allowed (Indianapolis).
Last week, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said he didn't sense that Flacco is pressing.
"I think good defenses can make a guy look like he's pressing," Cameron said.
Flacco also dismissed the notion that he has been playing hurt, even though he has been listed on the injury report for the past six weeks.
He sprained his right ankle at Minnesota on Oct. 18 and rolled it again Nov. 29 against Pittsburgh. He was listed with knee and hip injuries Wednesday.
"I'm as close to 100 percent as you can be," Flacco said. "I've got bruises and stuff like that. It's not affecting me on the field."
Flacco has never missed a practice leading up to a game, but there's a line of demarcation with the injury. Before he sprained his ankle, his quarterback rating was 95.5. Since that injury, his rating has been 67.0.
"The thing about Joe is he's very tough," Harbaugh said. "He's mentally tough and physically tough. He fights through it."
Lack of support?
An argument could be made as to whether the Ravens have built an offense around Flacco that will allow him to succeed.
The offensive line - which had two big additions this offseason (center Matt Birk and right tackle Michael Oher) - has given up eight sacks in the past two games. The wide receivers - which include only one newcomer (Kelley Washington) - are dropping passes and failing to generate big plays.
"We have enough guys that are more than capable of getting down the field," Mason said. "We've shown it. But what we got to do, the next four weeks we have to make it happen."
Like last season, there is no panic with Flacco or the Ravens. The last time Flacco threw three interceptions in a game, he quickly rebounded and put together a six-game stretch that included six touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Ravens also have a prime opportunity to get back on track Sunday against the Detroit Lions, who have the worst pass defense in the NFL.
"I think we have to realize that we're headed in the right direction," Flacco said. "We have to keep our head down and make sure we take it one game at a time. It starts with Detroit."
Baltimore Sun reporter Ken Murray contributed to this article.
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