No serious NFL fan will ever confuse the 2012 Baltimore Ravens offense with 1999 St. Louis Rams Greatest Show on Turf record setting unit, just yet. However, no team is better equipped than the Ravens to draw comparisons to Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Tory Holt, Isaac Bruce and company. The Rams led the NFL in scoring from 1999-2001. Although they do not own one of the three best single scoring seasons in NFL history, Warner, Faulk, Bruce and Holt managed to average 523 points per season during their highflying three-year run.

While many of you are laughing by reading the opening statement of this article, I assure you, the Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, and New Orleans Saints all lack the key ingredients, which made the Rams offense so potent during that span.

Green Bay lives and dies on the arm of the Aaron Rodgers, and for that matter, so does the New England Patriots with Tom Brady. Like the Rams did, the Packers have a talented group of wide receivers but lack the all-purpose back the Ravens possess in Ray Rice. For the Patriots, a couple of hybrid tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who combined to catch 169 passes for 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns, lead the Patriots offense. I know the Pats also have Wes Welker but let’s be honest, old Wes doesn’t exactly conjure up thoughts of Torry Holt or Isaac Bruce running down the sidelines under a perfectly lofted Warner pass.

I know the Packers, Patriots and Saints for that matter have all set their own legacy in terms of becoming an offensive juggernaut. Last year Aaron Rodgers and company fell just 29 points short of tying Tom Brady and the 2007 Patriots offense (589) for points scored in a season.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="280" caption="Marshall Faulk"][/caption]

Of the three teams, only the New Orleans Saints are close in terms of actual comparison. They have what amounts to an all-purpose back in Darren Sproles. However, let us not confuse Sproles with Marshall Faulk. Sproles had 1,313 yards from scrimmage in 2011 compared to Faulks 2,429 in 99. Sproles did rack up 2,696 total yards returning kicks but from the line of scrimmage, it is not even close.

If you look around the league at the teams that possess backs such as Ray Rice, they do not have a QB that has the breakout potential of a Joe Flacco in 2012. Maurice Jones Drew, who was second to Rice in 2011 with 1,980 total yards from scrimmage, isn’t even in camp yet. I hardly think Jags QB Blaine Gabbert is heading for the season Flacco may be and what about running back Chris Johnson in Tennessee you say, what about him? Johnson had 2,509 TYFS in 2009 but has not been heard from since and Jake Locker does not excite many as the QB in the Music City.

Serious comparisons could be with the Houston Texans who have Arian Foster, Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson. However, neither Schaub nor Johnson played all 16 games last season and Johnson has played in 16 games just twice during the past five seasons. Foster also seems to suffer from hamstring flare-ups at times. Not to mention, I hardly think WR Kevin Walter is heading for a Torrey Smith type season as the No.2 wideout in Houston.

Walter has averaged just 569 receiving yards and three touchdowns during the past three seasons, while Smith set Ravens rookie receiving records last season. He finished fourth on the team with 50 receptions for 841 yards and a team leading seven TDs. Smith posted a 34.4 yards-per-TD catch average, as five of Smith’s seven TD receptions were for at least 25 yards (74, 41, 38, 36, 26, 18 and 8). The second year standout from nearby Maryland has looked great in camp and has developed his game to be more than just a deep threat this season.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="237" caption="Torrey Smith"]Torrey Smith Wide receiver Torrey Smith #82 of the Baltimore Ravens waits for the snap against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the preseason game at M&T Bank Stadium on August 23, 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Baltimore Ravens won 48-17.[/caption]

Smith has studied the “route tree during the off-season, attended every offseason workout and OTA and his hard work is showing up on the field. During the Ravens third preseason game last season, the then-rookie dropped a pair of passes that left fans and coaches questioning whether the second-round pick could play in the NFL. What a difference a year makes as Smith was targeted a team high 11-times and led the team with eight catches for 103 yards during the Ravens third preseason game Thursday night.

Some say the Atlanta Falcons may be able to mimic the Rams offense from that era. Joe Flacco’s nemesis from the 2008 draft, Matt Ryan, has plenty of weapons in WR’s Roddy White and Julio Jones as well as a pretty good all-purpose back in Michael Turner. The question here is does “The Burner” have the pass catching abilities of Ray Rice coming out of the backfield? Turner has just 400 total career receiving yards and Rice has averaged 558 per season during his first four years in the league.

The Falcons were one of only two teams in the NFL last season to have 3,500-yard passer, 1,300-yard rusher and two 800-yard receivers. The Baltimore Ravens were the other.

Speaking of QB Joe Flacco, the Delaware product looks primed to become a top NFL passer this season. Flacco has had his best camp as a Raven and many of the issues that seemed to plague the fifth year signal caller during his first four years seem to be corrected. His footwork looks great, his pocket presence is much improved and he has clearly become the leader of the offense, if not the whole team.

Flacco’s career numbers will not jump out at you and scream Hall of Fame, just yet, but he is already a proven winner in the NFL. Flacco’s 44 regular season wins are the most ever by a starting quarterback in his first four years in the NFL. Flacco is the only starting quarterback in NFL history (since the 1970 merger) to reach the playoffs in each of his first four seasons. He became the first rookie QB in NFL history to win two playoff games in 2008 and is 5-4 in the postseason with four his wins coming on the road.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="399" caption="CAN JOE COOL JOIN THE TRULY ELITE (couldnt remove SANCHEZ)"][/caption]

Dating back to Dec 29, 2009, Joe Flacco has helped lead the Ravens to an 18-1 home record. In those games, he has completed 61.2% of his passes (339 of 554) for 4,397 yards, 29 TDs for a 97.6 QB rating. Including the playoffs, the only other quarterback in the NFL that has as many wins (49) as Joe Cool since the 09 season, is the Saints Drew Brees. The Ravens have become an elite NFL team under Head Coach John Harbaugh. Currently the Ravens own the NFL’s longest active playoff streak at four years if the offense gels as it should, that total will run at least another four. The tandem of Harbaugh and Flacco, which in 2008 set the NFL record for most wins ever (13, including playoffs) by a rookie head coach starting a rookie QB, now own the league mark for earning the playoffs in their first four seasons.

Like the '99 Rams, the Ravens offense could explode onto the scene this season and become of the league’s best units. This is a cohesive unit in that Harbaugh, Flacco and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron have been together for all five years in Baltimore. Helping the situation even further is new QB coach and former Indianapolis head coach Jim Caldwell, who will serve Joe Flacco well.

Caldwell guided perennial Pro Bowl QB Peyton Manning, serving as his QBs coach during a six-season span (2002-07) when Manning produced NFL highs in completions (2,482), completion percentage (66.5), passing yards (29,210), passing TDs (222) and passer rating (100.5). He was at Mannings side in Indy as the now Broncos QB won three of his four NFL MVP awards, including in 2004, when he threw for a career-high 49 TDs (only 10 INTs) and set a single-season personal-best 121.1 QB rating (second-best mark in NFL history).

Unlike Kurt Warner, who averaged an amazing 4,204 passing yards, 33 TD’s and owned an unbelievable 67.1 completion percentage during those three seasons, Flacco is more durable (knock on wood Ravens fans). His 73 NFL starts (including playoffs) are the most to begin a career by a QB in NFL history.

For all of the criticism that OC Cam Cameron has taken, he has never wavered in what he wants to achieve with this unit. Cameron believes in taking care of the ball and has used Ray Rice to near perfection. Cameron likes to work the ball down the field quickly while wearing the defense down in the process. After four long seasons and with the win on Thursday, it appears as if Cameron’s’ plans, hopes and ambitions may finally be coming to fruition.

During the Harbaugh/Cameron era, the Ravens have rushed for 131.3 yards per game (fourth in NFL) and scored 68 rushing TDs (tied for fourth best). In addition, Baltimore, which set a team record with only 22 turnovers in 2010, has committed only 87 turnovers, the NFL’s fourth fewest since 2008.

Further proof that Cameron’s offense is set for a breakout season may be found in the fact that in each of the past three seasons (2009-11), Joe Flacco and Aaron Rodgers are the only NFL QBs to throw for at least 3,600 yards and 20 TDs while posting 12 INTs or less. While defense has been the staple for a dozen years in Baltimore, the Ravens 23.6 points per game during the Flacco/Cameron Era (2008-11) rank ninth in the NFL.

Yes, Flacco looks great in the no huddle hurry up offense the Ravens have been executing and destroyed last season’s ninth best defense with on Thursday night, but Ray Rice is still be the engine that makes the offense run. If this offense is going to be successful over the long haul, Ray Rice must be used as much as the Rams used Marshall Faulk. Like the Rams offense of the late 90s and early 2000s, many believed that if you shut down the Rams great QB, Kurt Warner, you shut down the offensive circus in St. Louis. Not necessarily true, as many teams found out the hard way, the rhythm of the Rams’ offense ran through the great Marshall Faulk. Faulk, who was perhaps the greatest multipurpose back in the history of the NFL and was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2011, could hurt you by running the ball and catching it out of the backfield.

During the days of Warner, Faulk and the Greatest Show on Turf, many NFL defenses thought the way to beat the Rams was to get pressure on Warner and play physical against his receivers. When that occurred, Warner simply turned to Faulk. He would dump off to him in the flat, or hand the ball off and watch as Faulk used his great vision and cut back ability turning small gains into big ones.

It was not until Bill Belichick put together perhaps the best game plan in the history of the NFL, when his Patriots, as 14-point underdogs, beat St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI. In New England's upset of St. Louis, Belichick's game plan was to remove Faulk, hit him every chance they got and disrupt the timing of the offense. The Pats beat Faulk up and hit him on nearly every play. Current ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Ron Jaworski once said of Belichick’s game plan against Faulk and the Rams” ,The best coaching job I've ever seen. "Not just that season, not in a Super Bowl, but in 29 years of playing and watching football.”

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="275" caption="Warner struggled vs. the Pats"][/caption]

It was not unusual to see Kurt Warner throwing interceptions and fumbling the ball when Faulk was not available to him. His indecision on where to go with the ball was evident when Faulk was not an option. Last season, teams showed the way to stop the Ravens were very similar. The Titans did it in week two after the Ravens were riding high following a 35-7 win over the Steelers at home to start the season. Because the Titans did stop Rice, they stopped Flacco in the process. Tennessee made it a point to hit Rice early and often. They disrupted his routes coming out of the backfield by not allowing him off his blocks. This prevented Joe Flacco from dumping off to Rice in the flat, which disrupted the entire rhythm of the Ravens offense.

The Jacksonville Jaguars mastered the Titans defensive game during a week seven contest vs. the Ravens last season. However, many of the same Jaguar defenders that Flacco looked lost against during that Monday night debacle in late October, in which the Ravens had just 13-yards at halftime and lost the game 12-7, Flacco tore apart this past Thursday.

Flacco did so without Rice for most of the night on Thursday, as the Ravens first team offense scored 20-points in just two and half quarters of work. Rice had two carries for 30 yards and one was a 28-yard scamper. Flacco completed 26 passes for 266-yards and two touchdowns and proved that the offense is not just Ray Rice anymore. Flacco’s strong accurate arm and poise in the pocket this summer give fans hope that he has finally taken that next step.

While Joe Flacco will lead the offense, its success may still depend on Rice and his ability to continue to manufacture those all-important all-purpose yards. Rice must get his touches and if he gets at least 20, history says the Ravens will win the football game. During the past two seasons, the Ravens are 21-1 when Rice touches the ball 20 or more times in a game. Comparing Rice to Marshall Faulk is not as far a stretch as you may think.

Rice became just the second player in NFL history to post multiple 1,000-yard rushing/700-yard receiving seasons (also in 2009), joining Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, who did it an impressive four times (1998-2001).

Rice is as valuable to the Ravens as Faulk was to the Rams. Rice led the team with 76 receptions last season for 704 yards and three TD’s. He also led all NFL RBs in receptions and receiving yards in 2009, setting the Ravens’ RB single-season records in those categories. Faulk led the Rams in receptions in 1999. The Ravens won more than their share of games during the past four seasons when Joe Flacco had a bad game. They did not win a whole lot of games when Rice did the same.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="364" caption="Boldin and Smith to lead the charge"][/caption]

The Greatest Show on Turf had a great group of wide receivers and the Ravens have what appears to be their best group since Michael “Hehe” Jackson and Derrick Alexander back in 1996. The 2012 group of Ravens receivers is not quite ready to be cast in the same light as Isaac Bruce, Torrey Holt and the speedy Az-Zahir Hakim but as an overall pass-catching unit, Baltimore may have the potential to be a more dangerous unit. Where the Ravens may have an edge is at the tight end position. Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta seem ready to emerge as a poor man’s Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Last season the Ravens tandem of tight end talent stepped up to replace Todd Heap by catching a combined 94 passes for 933-yards and eight touchdowns. The duo was responsible for a quarter of the teams passing offense and 38 percent of the scoring strikes through the air.

On the outside, the Rams passing attack started with future Hall of Famer wide receiver Isaac Bruce. While Anquan Boldin does not possess Bruce’s’ HOF career stats, both are comparable in terms of what they bring to their team, on and off the field. Both were similar in that they beat a defender with experience instead of speed at this stage of their careers, and like Bruce did, Boldin always seems to find the first down marker. They are both tough and seemed to score the important touchdowns. Boldin, as Bruce was, is the veteran leader of a very young and talented unit. Boldin may not be Flacco’s favorite target, as maybe Bruce wasn’t Warner’s at times, but both were and are the go to guys when their QB’s need a critical catch or a slump busting TD pass.

When the Ravens need a touchdown, it seems like Boldin has been there over the past two seasons, and Bruce was no different in St. Louis. Bruce is destined for the Hall of Fame and if Boldin can have a tenth NFL season comparable to what Bruce did in his tenth yea. The Ravens will be just fine in 2012. Bruce had 69 catches for 981 yards and five touchdowns. Boldin was not great last season (57-887-3) but promises to be better in 12.

With Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones, as well as the emergence of LaQuan Williams and the consistency of Pitta and Dickson underneath, the Ravens have the potential to be better spread out the ball than the 99 Rams. The tight ends in St. Louis did not excite many. Roland Williams and Ernie Conwell were Warner’s TE’s during the three-year show. Williams averaged 18 catches and 164 yards as the primary pass-catching lineman with nine touchdowns between the 99’ and 2000 seasons. Conwell caught 38 passes for 431 yards and four touchdowns in 2001. While the Ravens have some things to prove before they can even be talked about with offenses such as the Greatest Show on Turf, the Ravens have to prove they have indeed taken the next step, but Flacco and his unit are most assuredly on the right track.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="360" caption="T-Sizzle and Ray Lew"][/caption]

Attitude can make a big difference on either side of the ball as the Ravens defense has proved for the past 12 years, but now it’s is time the offense catches a similar one with opposing defenses. Many prognosticators and experts are predicting a year that could see the Ravens run to the post-season end. The emergence of the Red Riffle and AJ Green in the jungle and of course the black and gold  have many thinking that the Ravens aging defense will not be able to overcome the loss of the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year winner, Terrell Suggs.  What they are not saying is how great, not good, but great Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense looks so far, and thank God for Thursday night.

Even future Hall of Fame Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis has finally succumb to the fact that NFL is an offensive league as he reported to camp as light as he’s been since his rookie season. The reason is to stay on the field and cover the pass catchers on third down. They say defense wins championships and that is a mantra I have preached whole-heartedly and why wouldn’t any Ravens fan. However, the tide is turning and you do not have to look no further than last year’s Super Bowl. The Patriots represented the AFC and were there thanks to their high-powered offense, which averaged 32 points per game.  Their defense finished the regular season with the 31st ranked defense, allowing 411 yards per game and along with the Green Bay Packers, ranked first and second last season in allowing the most passing yards in NFL history.

The Super Bowl winning Giants were the first team to win the Lombardi Trophy or an NFL championship that allowed more points (400) than it scored (397) during the regular season. The Giants finished 27th in the NFL defense — the worst ranking ever for a Super Bowl champion. So if the Ravens defense does slip a bit this season, and it is due, it will not be the end of the world in the Charm City.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="393" caption="Flacco and Cameron"][/caption]

It does appear as if this is finally the year Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, and the rest of the Ravens will be there to pick up the slack. If the defense can maintain a top five ranking then expect dominance in Baltimore this season, total dominance. While I know it is just the preseason, it is weird to see the Ravens offense leading the NFL in total offense and ranked 29th on defense. While the defense will not rank that low during the regular season, get used to see the offense ranked higher.

The '99-01 Rams possessed one of the greatest offenses in the history of the football. I know it is a very big stretch to ask the Ravens offense to duplicate what that team did but it is not out of the question. It certainly is not as far-fetched as it sounded a year ago at this time. What the Ravens need to do to get to that point is not as much as many think.

Protecting Flacco may be a concern, but there is simply too much talent and experience on the Ravens offensive line to worry for long about the issue. Bryant McKinnie, Michael Oher and company played well Thursday night and will only get better as they play together. Experts are saying Joe Flacco may be an average to better than average QB this season. Isn’t it ironic that many of the same experts said the Rams were in big trouble when Trent Green blew out his knee during a preseason game and a grocery store shelf stocker who was a former arena league quarterback took over.

The Ravens are primed for a breakout season on offense, the stars are lining up. Joe Flacco is already the Ravens all-time leading passer after four years but now seeks to top Vinny Testaverde’s 1996 individual season in Baltimore. The franchise’s first QB passed for a still franchise best 4,177 yards and 33 touchdowns during the team’s first year in Baltimore. That team posted a 4-12 mark, as the defense was horrific. The Ravens lost 11 of 16 games in which they held a lead that season.

The 2012 defense may slip, but it will not be that bad and if Flacco can top Testaverde’s numbers, you book your ticket to New Orleans; the Ravens are going to the Super Bowl with their own version of the Greatest Show on Turf, Baltimore black and purple style.


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