Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco is coming off the best statistical season… (Nick Wass/Associated Press )
The Baltimore Ravens have won a Super Bowl and been among the winningest franchises over the last dozen seasons — almost singularly because of their punishing defense. There’s no mistaking the intentions of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs, to overwhelm the opponent at the point of attack and smother whomever has the ball.
It’s worked so well that their offensive mates toil in relative anonymity, usually asked to manage the game with a concentration on ball security.
That formula, though, may be about to change this season with the addition of two of the fastest players in the league at wide receiver and the ascent of a quarterback who is coming off the most productive and efficient season of his brief NFL career.
Joe Flacco threw for 3,622 yards and 25 touchdowns, both career highs, last year in leading Baltimore to a 12-4 record in just his third season as the full-time starter. Equally encouraging were his career-low 10 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 93.6, the best of his career and fourth in the AFC behind only Philip Rivers, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.
Flacco posted those numbers without regular wide receivers who possessed the blazing speed that keeps defensive coordinators up at night, so it’s clear why he and Coach John Harbaugh are almost giddy about the possibilities this season.
The most notable upgrade is Lee Evans, who for seven seasons languished in Buffalo. With the likes of Kelly Holcomb, J.P. Losman and Trent Edwards, among others, playing quarterback, Evans still managed two 1,000-yard seasons on a club that finished with a winning record only once since the Bills drafted him 13th overall in 2004.
Now Evans is part of an organization where winning is the expectation rather than the exception, and his enthusiasm has been unmistakable. The results so far have been pretty good too. Evans’s 128 yards ranks him in the top 25 in the NFL this preseason.
“He’s the guy that pretty much takes the top off the defense, opens up everything underneath for guys like myself and Ray Rice and other guys,” wideout Anquan Boldin said of Evans, who was spotted in a walking boot Saturday. “He’s definitely a guy that can stretch defenses.”
Ravens fans had a glimpse of that game-changing speed in last week’s 34-31 preseason victory over Washington at M&T Bank Stadium.
Late in the second quarter, Evans lined up to Flacco’s right against cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who had returned an interception for a touchdown in the first quarter. Evans ran a go route down the right sideline and got past Hall for a 35-yard touchdown on a precisely thrown pass from Flacco.
Those are the plays that enticed the Ravens to send a fourth-round pick to Buffalo for Evans, whose best season came in 2006. Evans had career bests of 82 catches for 1,292 yards and was just about the only player of note for an offense that finished 30th in the league in total yards and 23rd in points that year.
Since 2005, Evans has missed just four games. His track record of durability is all the more significant considering he’s listed at just 5 feet 10, which makes him one of the most diminutive players on the roster.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunities out there for me, for all the receivers,” Evans said. “I mean you look at what our receiver corps is and what are running backs are, there’s a lot of opportunities out there for everybody, so it’s just about making the best of them. We can be a very, very good offense as long as we’re working together.”
The equation this season also presumably includes rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith, whom the Ravens selected in the second round of the draft. Smith ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds at the NFL combine, placing him fourth. The former Maryland star initially ran it in an unofficial time of 4.37 seconds.
The additions of Smith and Evans underscored the Ravens’ commitment to retool the offense around Flacco and Rice, a highly productive featured back who’s also a threat in the intermediate passing game.
Baltimore for years has tried to get back to the Super Bowl with limited attention to the deep ball, but with the league more passing oriented than ever, and elite teams such as New England, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis capable of the quick strike, the Ravens clearly were at a competitive disadvantage.
In fact it was a long gain that effectively ended Baltimore’s season in the AFC semifinals in January at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field. With the game tied at 24 late in the fourth quarter, Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a 58-yard pass to then-rookie wide receiver Antonio Brown. Rashard Mendenhall scored the winning touchdown, and the Steelers were on their way to the AFC championship game and the Super Bowl.
That play still resonates in the Ravens locker room. Boldin aknowledged that he and his teammates use it as incentive. With Smith and Evans on board, the Ravens now have the speed to do to other teams what their arch-rival did to them in the playoffs.
“Lee’s been definitely bringing us a lot,” Flacco said. “You can tell the burst he has, the ability to go get balls, the ability to get inside on the slant, keep his momentum going, so he’s been a big help for us, and we’re expecting some big things out of him.”