Ravens Notebook

Ravens' offense finds life with the shotgun formation

OWINGS MILLS – Joe Flacco stood several yards behind center Matt Birk, calling out his cadence and catching the snap crisply before delivering accurate spirals to his targets downfield. The shotgun formation and the no-huddle offense provided a strong boost to the Baltimore Ravens' languishing offense, resurrecting a dormant attack during a 30-27 comeback victory Sunday over the Arizona Cardinals.

Using the shotgun formation almost exclusively after falling behind by three touchdowns, the Ravens' three longest offensive plays against the Cardinals were all out of the shotgun. That included a 37-yard throw to wide receiver Anquan Boldin in the no-huddle and shotgun that led to a Ray Rice touchdown run, a 36-yard completion to wide receiver Torrey Smith out of the shotgun that set up a game-winning field goal by Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff as well as a 27-yarder to Boldin out of the no-huddle and shotgun before Rice's second touchdown run. "We've been in the shotgun a ton," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Will we do more of it? I think it depends on the situation. Yeah, if it gives us the best chance to move the ball." The Ravens were definitely more effective running the shotgun after halftime than they were in the first half operating primarily with Flacco under center in an I-formation. They ran the shotgun formation for nearly 50 of their 80 offensive plays. The Ravens finished with 405 yards of total offense on 80 plays, gaining 156 yards on 40 plays in the first half and 249 yards in the second half when they scored 24 points And Flacco passed for 62 yards out of the shotgun to lead a drive capped by a field goal to end the first half, passing for 238 yards in the second half while running the shotgun nearly every time. In the first half, Flacco completed only 12 of 23 throws for 98 yards with just 27 yards on four drives not running the shotgun. The combination of not huddling to keep the defense off-guard and not able to substitute as well as the shotgun buying him time to go through is progressions increased Flacco's effectiveness. "I think we react well to the hurry-up," Flacco said. "I think it can put a defense on their heels a little bit. I think it can wear them out a little bit. It's tough to rush the passer, really be able to hold up in there and continue to get that good pass rush. I think that was a big part of it, and obviously, within that, guys have to make catches, make some plays." The Ravens allowed two of their three sacks by halftime, but the extra time built through the shotgun gave the offensive line a little longer to set up their pass protection. And Boldin caught a game-high seven passes for 145 yards, doing most of his damage in the second half with five receptions for 117 yards and a pair of pass interference penalties drawn that led to Rice touchdown runs. "Just a move," Boldin said of the change in strategy. "Sometimes, you just have to show a little energy out there, and I think going no-huddle, up-tempo offense gave us a shot at that." That isn't to say that the Ravens should always run the shotgun even though Flacco appears to be much more comfortable in that set in terms of timing and chemistry. Plus, he ran it the majority of the time while attending the University of Delaware.

According to the Ravens, Flacco has completed only 50.9 percent of his throws in 109 passing attempts out of the shotgun, which has also produced four interceptions, two touchdowns and nine sacks for a 62.8 quarterback rating . And the Ravens want to continue to emphasize a running game spearheaded by Rice and All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach.

"You've got to have him under the center, too," Harbaugh said. "There are certain formations that he's going to be under center. There are certain concepts that run better from under center, but we like him in the gun. We like him under center, too. He's been effective in the shotgun, that's true."

Notebook: Offensive line struggling to protect Flacco

OWINGS MILLS – Enduring an excessive amount of punishment, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked three times and fumbled twice against the Arizona Cardinals. Most of the damage was done in the first half before the Ravens resorted to a shotgun formation and no-huddled attack. The Ravens allowed just one sack after halftime during their 30-27 comeback victory. However, the offensive line was flagged for five penalties.

"I think they played better as the game went on.," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "We were getting the ball out faster as the game went on, obviously. The tempo helped us. They still pressured, but it's hard to rush the passer when you start getting tired."

The Cardinals have some formidable defensive linemen in Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett, but they don't present the same kind of challenge as the aggressive Pittsburgh Steelers' front seven.

And Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison is expected to return for Sunday night's pivotal AFC North showdown against Baltimore after being sidelined with a broken eye cavity. Plus, the Ravens' offensive line has struggled for the past three games in pass protection. There were seven quarterback hits against the Houston Texans and three sacks and a fumble against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"My assessment is that they'll be ready to play against Pittsburgh, and we'll be the best offensive line we can be," Harbaugh said. "They're capable of playing winning football against Pittsburgh. That's the only thing you need to assess as a coach. You look at where you can get better, and how specifically, and you try and work on all those things, and you build on the good things."

Ravens left tackle Bryant McKinnie and left guard Andre Gurode have struggled to ward off athletic defensive linemen and outside linebackers, and the task grows tougher against the Steelers' outside linebacker tandem of Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

For the season, Flacco has lost four fumbles. "We've got to buckle down as far as execution and being more consistent," center Matt Birk said. "We've got to do a better job. Letting them get a short field by hitting Joe and picking up the football is not how you win games. We changed our approach. We got out of the funk just in time to get the win. Next week is a brand-new test." McKinnie was beaten badly by outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield for a sack and forced fumble that led to a Beanie Wells touchdown run. "Personally, I was on the island and there was pressure coming in Joe's face," McKinnie said. "We can do a better job overall and we will." Gurode said the offense stuck together to rally back from its 21-point deficit.

"There was frustration that we kept making mistakes, but not a sense of panic," Gurode said. "We used good technique and did whatever we needed to do to give Joe time. We played hard and did what we had to do."

TAUNTING?: The Ravens were flagged twice for taunting as running back Ray Rice and strong safety Bernard Pollard were each hit with unsportsmanlike conduct infractions.

Pollard said he was flagged for standing over Cardinals tight end Jeff King. Rice celebrated after a long gain. Puzzled by the penalties, Harbaugh said he's seeking an explanation from the league. "I am going to have to save that for the league, to be honest with you.," Harbaugh said when asked what he saw on the exchanges. "I don't understand them, so we'll look forward to seeing how the league explains them to us." Harbaugh emphasized that his players use good sportsmanship.

"We try to play with class," Harbaugh said. "If you look at Ray Rice for instance, this guy is nothing but class. He's been that way from the first day he stepped on campus. He's a star, and he plays with emotion and enthusiasm. I look at Bernard the same way, and that's the way Pittsburgh plays. And that's the way the great teams in this league play.

"We play with enthusiasm, with emotion and love for the game. The NFL's drawn a real clear line on what's tolerated and what's not tolerated, and I think our guys are very good at understanding that, and our guys are very respectful of their opponents. So, we just try to walk on that line."

STRUGGLING: It's already been a rough year for the Ravens' special teams units and the season isn't quite at its midway point. First, they allowed a 107-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against New York Jets kick returner Joe McKnight for the longest return surrendered in franchise history.

Now, they gave up an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown to Cardinals rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson.

The Ravens' tackling was shoddy as Peterson ran through a handful of arm tackles in the open field, including reserve safety Haruki Nakamura. And the Ravens' lane discipline was substandard again.

"You've got to tackle, you know?" Harbaugh said. "The punt return, we looked bad on that. We didn't get down the field fast enough. We didn't look fast at all. We didn't tackle.

"It's not like we got blocked. We had six or seven opportunities to get them down, and we missed them all. So, that's the biggest thing about that play, and that's something we've got to work on."

Punter Sam Koch attributed one breakdown to himself, saying he should have had better hang time on the touchdown.

"He could get more hang time," Harbaugh said. "Sam wants to do it right. I don't know exactly off the top of my head what the hang time was. I don't think it was terrible, but if you hang it up there and force a fair catch then you don't have a return.

"He's capable of doing that. It's either that or you put it on the sideline, plenty of times Sam has done that. I think that's what he's talking about, but we've got to cover it better, no doubt."

SECONDARY DEPTH GROWING: The Ravens' secondary is getting healthier, building depth as cornerback Chris Carr and strong safety Tom Zbikowski returned Sunday from injuries.

"It builds our depth, which is going to be big," Harbaugh said. "We have had games where we have had seven active in the last few weeks. I thought they both played well. They are only going to play better as they get healthier." Meanwhile, rookie first-round cornerback Jimmy Smith saw his most extensive playing time yet in the defense.

Smith played in his first game since the season opener against the Steelers against the Jacksonville Jaguars, lining up on special teams. "To just in the game and play was big for him," Harbaugh said. "He didn't have a chance to play as much the week before against Jacksonville. He played very little in the preseason with his injuries that he had. So, he's a guy that we're going to be counting on going forward.

"He's going to have an expanded role, I would think, hopefully every week as we go forward. He was in the dime package a little bit last week and did a good job. We'll just have to see how it goes from there."

CHOP BLOCKING: Following the Ravens' 35-7 victory to launch the season, the Steelers' defense accused the Ravens' offensive line of illegal chop blocks.

The Ravens rushed for 170 yards and allowed just one sack, and they weren't penalized. Under NFL rules, the Ravens blocking strategies appear to be legal. The NFL allows linemen to block below the waist as long as the lineman began the play one position over from the defender.

In other words, it's fine for a guard to block a nose guard who's locked up with the center. However, it's not allowed for a tackle to block down on a nose guard who's grappling with a center.

"You can get hurt from an illegal chop block, but I guess it isn't an illegal chop block if they don't call it," nose guard Casey Hampton said. Added nose guard Chris Hoke: "Some of the things they were doing were questionable rules wise and dangerous."

Following that game, Harbaugh strongly defended the Ravens' blocking techniques. And he referenced his comments Monday when asked about the Steelers' remarks

"A lot of teams do that, that's how people block," Harbaugh said. "They've done a pretty good job of defending those schemes. We haven't changed anything."

QUICK HIT: All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis suffered a right shoulder stinger and sat out four plays Sunday before returning. One day later, Harbaugh said the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year is doing well. "Yeah, he's fine," Harbaugh said.

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