The overhaul of the Baltimore Ravens’ receiver corps was widely viewed as Job No. 1 this offseason for the Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. And he went about doing it, cutting Jeremy Maclin, letting Mike Wallace and Michael Campanaro go as free agents, and then bringing in Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead, who was signed away from the New Orleans Saints as a restricted free agent, an unprecedented move for the franchise.
The Ravens also drafted two wide receivers and cut Breshad Perriman at the end of training camp, further revamping the passing game.
So there’s no question the Ravens’ wide receiver corps is different. But after nine games, with this year’s team matching last year’s 4-5 record at the bye, it begs the question: Is this year’s receiver corps better? And has it made the offense better?
One thing is undeniable: This year’s group is busier.
Throughout the first nine games last year, the Ravens threw 308 passes, with 79 going to wide receivers. During the first nine games this year, the Ravens threw 391 passes, with 132 going to wide receivers. Here is a nine-game comparison of the top three receivers:
Jeremy Maclin — 27 catches, 310 yards, 3 TD
Mike Wallace — 20 catches, 267 yards, 2 TD
Michael Campanaro — 12 catches, 91 yards, 0 TD
Willie Snead — 45 catches, 448 yards, 1 TD
Michael Crabtree — 41 catches, 472 yards, 2 TD
John Brown — 34 catches, 601 yards, 4 TD
By these metrics, it’s clear the Ravens’ receiver group is much more productive this season.
Brown has proved to be a big-play threat and a bargain for the Ravens on a one-year, $5 million deal. The Ravens’ single-season franchise receiving record (1,201, Michael Jackson, 1996) is in reach, although teams are starting to key on Brown. He’s been held to 28 and 15 yards, his lowest two totals of the season, the past two games.
Snead has become quarterback Joe Flacco’s go-to receiver on third down, and Crabtree is on pace for about 73 catches and 840 yards, respectable numbers that would rank in the top half of his 10-year career.
But dig deeper into those numbers and there are issues.
After a strong start, quarterback Joe Flacco has been inconsistent lately, with a patchwork offensive line perhaps a factor. Flacco’s passer rating of 84.2 ranks 26th in the league. Crabtree has not found the end zone as much as the Ravens had hoped when they signed him. The Ravens have been increasingly reliant on the passing game because the running game is struggling.
And maybe most notably, the frequency with which the Ravens are throwing seems to run directly counter to owner Steve Bisciotti’s stated goals.
Crabtree has just two touchdowns this season after catching nine, eight and eight during the previous three seasons. Coming into this year, Crabtree and Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown were the only receivers in the league with at least eight touchdown catches each of the past three years. Brown has already reached that mark this year, but it will take a major uptick for Crabtree to join him.
Crabtree’s red-zone proficiency was seen as one of his major assets, but he has had a couple of potential touchdowns go off his hands this season. Head coach John Harbaugh said the Ravens have “dried up” in the red zone recently, and a rushed throw from Flacco that glanced off the hands of a diving Crabtree at the goal line against Pittsburgh Nov. 4 was one example of that. As the Ravens look to improve in the red zone, Crabtree figures to be a big part of that.
The improved passing numbers have come as the Ravens’ running game has been stuck in neutral much of the year. The Ravens rank 27th in the league in rushing (92.7 yards per game) and 31st in yards per carry (3.61). Rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson has the team’s longest run at 22 yards, and the Ravens are the only team in the league without at least one 20-yard run by a running back.
Some will point out that in games where the Ravens have had to play catch-up, they are much more reliant on the pass. But keep in mind that in lopsided wins against the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans, the Ravens were run-heavy much of the fourth quarter, so that has a tendency to even out.
Whether it’s because of the run game struggles, or just game plans developed by offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, what is most glaring at this point is the sheer number of passes thrown by the Ravens. Their 391 passes this year are the most in the league, and they are on pace for 695 passes this season, which would be a franchise record.
But unless he’s changed his tune, that’s not a record that Bisciotti is likely to celebrate. This was Bisciotti after the 2016 season, which ended with an 8-8 record and a franchise-record 679 passes: “I do not think we are going to be successful putting the ball in the air 600-and-some times. It is just not our identity, and I do not know how we got that far away from it.”
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