The Ravens may have changed offensive coordinators last month, but they have not changed tactics. They still love the long ball.

Why shouldn’t they? Joe Flacco has one of the best arms in the NFL. Torrey Smith and the other Ravens receivers can run really fast and jump really high. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce run so well that defenses cannot keep their safeties deep the whole game. It’s a simple formula, and it has served the Ravens well for five seasons.

But the “bombs away” tactics did not serve them very well until Week 16 this year. Too many Ravens bombs failed to reach their targets, which is why the Ravens offense sputtered and one reason why Cam Cameron was fired. Jim Caldwell is using similar strategies, but because of better execution, he is getting better results.

Bombing More, Enjoying it Less. The Ravens attempted 53 passes that traveled 30 or more yards in the air this season, six of which were nullified by penalties. A 30+-yard pass is a certified bomb, and 3.5 of them per game (we are discounting Week 17, when Flacco left a meaningless game early and the Ravens used a decoy offense), is a very high ratio. The NFL average for 30+-yard passes per game is just above 1.5. The Ravens themselves averaged just over two long bombs per game.

All of the extra bombing accomplished little. The table below shows the Ravens’ bomb statistics for 2011 and 2012:

Table 1: Passes of 30+ Yards in Air Length

  Att Comp Pct Yards YPA TD INT
2011 33 9 27.2 414 12.5 3 2
2012 47 12 25.5 476 10.1 3 0
The Ravens offense lapsed into self-parody at times this season, with Flacco tossing 35 incomplete bombs. The Ravens went 1-for-5 on bombs against the Eagles, 1-for-6 against the Chargers, 0-for-8 against the Steelers in two games and 1-for-5 against the Patriots. We will return to the Patriots in a moment.
After Caldwell replaced Cameron, the Ravens went 3-for-5 on 30+-yard bombs in two games. They followed that with very efficient deep-passing performances against the Colts and Broncos in the playoffs.
Caldwell has not created any radical new offensive schemes, but he may have taken steps to improve one serious problem. Football Outsiders tracks the reason for every incomplete pass thrown during an NFL season. The next table shows a breakdown of the Ravens’ incomplete or intercepted bombs in 2011 and 2012, by season:
Table 2: Ravens Incomplete Bomb Breakdown
  Overthrown Defensed Dropped Other
2011 13 5 3 4
2012 20 9 2 4

An overthrown bomb can mean many things. Sometimes, they are just the residue of design. The quarterback is supposed to lead the receiver past his defender on these plays, and an overthrow is better than an underthrow, which is much easier to intercept. Sometimes, the quarterback puts too much mustard on the ball, and mustard-control is a recurring Flacco issue. Sometimes, the timing of the play is off, and the quarterback throws too soon to a receiver who was bumped at the line or redirected.

Whether caused by bad throws, bad timing or bad decisions (or combinations thereof), 20 overthrows on deep passes are far too many. Nineteen of them came in the 13 games Cameron coordinated. Caldwell has curtailed the heave-and-hope element of the Ravens offense: one regular-season overthrow in two meaningful games, another noteworthy one in the Broncos playoff game (Flacco missed Smith by that much in the second quarter), but a much higher overall success rate.

Some of this may just be random fluctuation – this is a small data set on a high-volatility play where a lot can happen – but it may represent a change in the way deep passes are prepared and practiced during the week. Flacco appears to have better timing with Smith, Anquan Boldin and Jacoby Jones, and Ravens bombs are starting to look like surgical strikes again, not random attacks.

Bombs Away, But We’re OK. Let’s take a closer look at two Ravens bombs, one a completion from the Broncos playoff game that shows how the Ravens try to neutralize safeties in the deep game, the other a near-interception from the Patriots game that shows how Bill Belichick effectively countered the Ravens in Week 3.

Figure 1
Figure 1 shows Torrey Smith’s first-quarter touchdown in Saturday’s playoff game. It is second-and-two and the Ravens are in shotgun, with speedy tight end Dennis Pitta (88) giving them a three-receiver look by flexing out right. Everything about the situation and formation screams “we want to take a shot deep,” and the Broncos get the message: Most of their defenders are giving receivers eight-yard cushions. The exception is Champ Bailey (24), who is head-up on Torrey Smith (82).

The Broncos run a little zone blitz, with most of their coverage defenders fanning out in zone coverage while a linebacker blitzes and an edge rusher drops. The Ravens pick up the blitz with an extra blocker, and their route combination is designed to keep the deep safety occupied so he cannot help Bailey. Anquan Boldin (81) and Pitta run deep crossing routes in front of the safety. They are a direct threat to the middle of the field, so he is forced to focus on them. Bailey is on his own, and Smith is just too big and fast for the aging All-Pro. Flacco has a clean pocket and time to scan the field. His pass is on time and on target.

This play demonstrates how the Ravens can attack deep, even when the defense expects a deep pass. The keys are: a) make sure the pass protection is sound so receivers can get deep and Flacco can set and throw in rhythm; and b) attack with multiple downfield targets so safeties are forced to play multiple choice. When Flacco has time and a relatively simple read, he can complete deep passes like these. Early in the season, he did not have enough of either.

Figure 2
When the Patriots faced the Ravens in Week 3, they tried to lure Flacco into throwing ill-advised deep passes by confusing his reads. Figure 2 shows the Patriots in what is called a two-deep shell, with both safeties deep, on first-and-10. Based on the alignment of the cornerbacks -- more-or-less head up on their receivers, with Devin McCourty (32) giving Smith a cushion -- Flacco reads Man-2: man-to-man coverage with two safeties in deep zones. Because a fake handoff should freeze the defense, and Boldin will threaten the deep safety with a post route from the slot, Flacco appears to have a good chance to hit Smith, who runs a double-move designed to get him outside of McCourty along the right sideline.

The Patriots are not running Man-2, however. They blitz with their slot defender, and then run a hybrid of man and zone coverage, which appears to be Cover-7. Cover-7 has a zillion variations (defenders change duties based on offensive formation and other factors), so here is a simplified version of what is happening. With Smith and Boldin to one side of the formation, the cornerback and safeties focus deep zone coverage on that side of the field. The cornerback on the opposite side, with only a tight end to cope with, plays man-to-man. The linebackers play underneath.

Long story short: McCourty is not really in man coverage against Smith. He hustles into his deep zone at the snap and ignores Smith’s double moves. The blitz forces Flacco to decide quickly, and further establishes the ruse that he has a favorable matchup to the left. When Flacco throws deep, McCourty is not trying to keep up with Smith with his back turned. He is facing Flacco, in better position to receive the pass than Smith! Only a great bit of “defense” by Smith prevents an interception.

McCourty later dropped an interception on a deep route. Had he hauled in that pass, or made a catch despite Smith’s involvement on this one, the Patriots might have beaten the Ravens in Week 3. Instead, they won battles like these but lost the war 31-30.

More than Bombs. Coverage schemes like the one shown in Figure 2 take away deep routes, but they can also leave receivers open underneath. Flacco threw for 382 yards and three touchdowns against the Patriots because he was effective on short-to-intermediate routes, which are usually the weakest element of the Ravens offense. The Patriots defense has changed since Week 3 – McCourty is now at safety, with Aqib Talib at cornerback, upgrading two positions – so Belichick will not have to make as many compromises to defend the deep ball.

Even when the Ravens are connecting on short passes, the long bomb is the key to their offense. They rely not only on those 40-yard chunks of production and sudden touchdowns, but on the space an effective bomb game creates underneath. Late in the season, the Ravens bomb game had become so ineffective that defenses could take chances in coverage, choke out the running game and short routes and hold them to 13-16 points per game. Better execution on one or two plays per game can go a long way, and the Ravens have once again stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb.  

(One final note: I did not diagram the game-tying touchdown to Jacoby Jones, because that was the result of a blown coverage by Rahim Moore, and even with arrows and things it is impossible to express just how stationary he was using a stationary diagram.)