OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Joe Flacco is quarterbacking the most conservative offense in the NFL by nearly every statistical measure.
But the Baltimore Ravens have reached the point where they need to change that philosophy, if Flacco has any say about it. During Baltimore's bye, Flacco sounded like a quarterback who has had enough of the checkdown, checkdown, checkdown game plan.
"We need to go after it," Flacco said Wednesday when asked if he wants the offense to open up more. "We can't sit back and just expect us to not lose football games. We got to go attack. We're a 4-5 football team. You always look at teams that are in this position and feel they have nothing to lose -- and we should feel that way. We got to go out there and leave it all out there."
Flacco has one of the strongest arms in the league, and he's been paired with two of the most accomplished deep threats over the past decade in Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin. That's why it's baffling how ineffective the Ravens have been in getting Flacco's deep downfield pass to speed receivers who can fly past cornerbacks.
Flacco's average pass is traveling 6.1 yards in the air, which is the worst in the NFL and the lowest of his career by nearly a yard. His 21 throws of 20 or more yards rank 28th in the league and underscore the lack of urgency to push the ball downfield.
Former Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta, who is a close friend of Flacco, said one of the reasons why Baltimore's offense has struggled is philosophy. He believes the offense can't keep playing conservative football and rely on its defense to win games.
"Right now, Joe has one read and then he's got to check it down if it's not there," Pitta told WBAL Radio in Baltimore. "That's really the offense they have set up for him. It's difficult to play quarterback under those circumstances."
Flacco, Wallace and others say the Ravens have the players in place to deliver big plays. History says they're right.
From 2010 to 2016, Flacco completed 139 passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air. That ranked No. 8 in the NFL over that span.
The Ravens were the only team to enter the season with two receivers who ranked in the top 10 in most catches of passes that went 20 or more yards over the past eight seasons. From 2009 to 2016, Wallace caught 64 of those deep throws and Maclin pulled in 52.
That past success has not resulted in big plays this season. In nine games, Baltimore has only five completions on passes of 20-plus yard.
Do the Ravens need to become more aggressive on offense and play like they have nothing to lose (as Flacco said)?
"Players have to go out there and play great. They have to execute," coach John Harbaugh said. "If you're talking about offense -- we need to complete passes, we need to run the ball well, we need to protect our quarterback, we need to go up and make catches, we need to execute, we need first downs, we need to score points. It's not about playcalling; it's about all of us together, going out there and playing winning football in all three phases.”
Winning football has meant letting Flacco throw the ball deep. When Baltimore reached the playoffs in Flacco's first five seasons, he averaged over 8.7 yards in pass attempt distance. In the past three years (which includes the non-playoff seasons of 2015 and 2016), Flacco has averaged 7.1 yards or fewer on his passes.
The Ravens have shown brief flashes of attacking downfield. There was the 52-yard pass to Wallace on the first play from scrimmage in Oakland and the 34-yard touchdown throw to Maclin against Miami. But those big plays have been offset by plays like one last Sunday on which wide receiver Breshad Perriman didn't attack a nicely thrown Flacco downfield pass and watched it get intercepted.
For the most part, Baltimore's offense -- which is 31st in passing -- has been more exacerbating than electric.
"It is tough to have a lot of those long drives and do that consistently," Flacco said. "You have to have some of those quick strikes in you, so you do not have to convert four or five third downs every single drive in order to score a touchdown."
The top big-play offenses are also the top scoring teams in the league. Of the eight quarterbacks who've completed 13 or more 20-yards-or-more passes, seven are leading offenses that rank in the top 10 in scoring.
Are there not enough opportunities deep downfield throws?
"Uh, everybody wants more chances," Wallace said. "It's football."
Harbaugh sees the disconnect between Flacco and his receivers on downfield throws is the culmination of factors not clicking. He pointed out one instance where everything had gone according to plan -- the play-action sucked in defenders and Baltimore's speed players ran past them -- until an unaccounted rusher applies pressure and forces Flacco out of the pocket.
"It’s just too many times those little kinds of things are interjecting themselves into these plays," Harbaugh said. "I think when you see the plays that are cleaner, that’s when you see the completions."