Early in training camp, when Joe Flacco had his full arsenal of weapons at his disposal, the Ravens quarterback often gave the Baltimore defense fits in daily red-zone drills. He stood tall in the pocket and lasered touchdown passes between defenders, who were left shaking their heads.
So far, though, the results have yet to translate to preseason games against unfamiliar defenses.
In their first two games, the Ravens have scored two touchdowns in five possessions inside the 20-yard line. In two red-zone trips, the first-team offense has one touchdown, which came when Flacco fired a 9-yard scoring strike to tight end Ed Dickson in the preseason opener.
"We just have to score touchdowns down there," John Harbaugh said Monday. "We practice it a lot. We've had good days out here against our defense, and not-so-good days. But if you take the two preseason games, obviously, it's got to be better than that. We need seven [points]."
Flacco echoed his coach, singling out red-zone offense as the main area in which he would like to see improvement during Thursday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. It is no surprise that it is a major emphasis, as the Ravens didn't finish those drives in the end zone often enough in 2011.
During the regular season, the Ravens came away with points on all but five of their red-zone possessions and finished fifth in overall red-zone scoring at 89.8 percent. Their lone turnover was a Flacco fumble late in the blowout win over theSt. Louis Rams. But with 25 touchdowns in their 49 red-zone possessions, the Ravens ranked 17th in touchdown percentage at 51 percent.
In the playoffs, they scored just three touchdowns and two field goals in seven possessions, and their Super Bowl run stalled inside the red zone in the final minute of the AFC championship game.
Trailing the Patriots, 23-20, when they reached New England's 14-yard line, the Ravens' track record suggested that overtime, at the very least, was a formality. But two plays after wide receiver Lee Evans dropped a pass in the end zone, kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal wide left.
Still, looking back, the Ravens can find positives to build on as they head into the 2012 season.
In the past two seasons combined, Flacco tossed 31 touchdown passes in the red zone without throwing an interception, according to ESPN. Asked about the impressive stat two weeks ago, Flacco said he would like to make it 60 touchdowns passes in the red zone in two years, which would place him among the league leaders (Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints led the NFL with 30 in 2011).
And in the second half of 2011, the Ravens scored 13 touchdowns in 21 red-zone possessions.
The Ravens are confident they have the right personnel to duplicate that late-season success.
Ray Rice is one of the NFL's most electrifying running backs, and he chases an All-Pro fullback, Vonta Leach, through the offensive line. Wide receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin bring speed and toughness, respectively. And Jacoby Jones and possibly rookie Tommy Streeter, who is 6 feet 5, may leap up to snag Flacco's fades, providing a vertical dimension the red-zone offense has lacked.
Then there are the third-year tight ends, Dickson and Dennis Pitta, who are sidelined with a sprained shoulder and broken hand, respectively, but hope to be back by Week 1. The athletic Dickson is quick enough to attack the seams and the sure-handed Pitta has earned the full trust of his quarterback.
"I think we can be a lot more aggressive," Dickson said. "We've got a lot of firepower."
Flacco agrees that it is probably worth taking more chances inside the red zone, but it doesn't necessarily have to mean risking more interceptions. To him, aggressiveness means attacking defenses inside the red zone more often on first and second down, "where things may be a little bit more vanilla," instead of on third down, which he called "the toughest down there is."
"I think we're going to do it a smart way, and I think it's going to be trusting me and trusting our guys," the fifth-year quarterback said. "If we do that stuff, we're upping our chances to score touchdowns [and] not in any way upping our chances to throw interceptions, even though we might be doing it a little bit more. I think there [are] downs that are advantageous to being aggressive down there, and I don't know how much in the past we've taken full advantage of that."
But running the ball more effectively as the Ravens near the goal line would also be beneficial. Last season, in 30 goal-to-go situations, they scored 20 touchdowns, with 13 on the ground. However, the Baltimore offensive line, which didn't physically dominate in short-yardage situations like some of its predecessors have, has identified the red zone as an area in which it can improve.
"I think that when you are down there, obviously, it is more difficult to run the ball. It's not an excuse, but that's the way it is," veteran center Matt Birk said. "I think that with the way we are built, that's what we want to do. We want to run first and make teams stop that first."
Really, though, the way the Ravens get the football across the goal line doesn't matter. If they can become just a little more productive in the red zone, great things may eventually follow. The past eight Super Bowl champions scored touchdowns on at least 54 percent of their red-zone possessions.
"When you get down there, you have to put the ball in the end zone in this league," Flacco said. "In this era of football, you really have to put touchdowns on the board as much as you can."