Ravens' 'Smoke' show: Joe Flacco, John Brown burning up camp

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- In what has become the signature play of this year's Baltimore Ravens training camp, quarterback Joe Flacco flung a tight spiral 30 yards downfield and wide receiver John Brown made a diving catch.

The deep pass -- which has been rare in Baltimore's offense in recent years -- suddenly has become routine. Flacco is enjoying perhaps the best training camp of his 11-year career, and Brown is producing what might be the best summer any Ravens wide receiver has ever had.

Asked why he's connecting more downfield than in previous years, Flacco pointed squarely at the target known as "Smoke."

"I really think that’s a credit to [Brown] and just how well he can get off the ball and get going vertical and put those DBs in a bad position," Flacco said. "When you don’t get that, it makes it a little bit tough to hang back there and figure out where you’re going to put the ball. I think him in particular, he’s just been doing a great job of beating guys off the line and showing guys what he’s made of."

This big-play connection has been the biggest missing element to the Ravens' offense. Since the "Mile High Miracle," it has been a nightmare for Flacco when throwing downfield.

Over the past five seasons, Flacco is the worst-rated deep-ball quarterback. He completed 24.6 percent of his throws that traveled at least 25 yards in the air, recording 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions for a 62.3 rating.

If training camp is any indication, this trend will reverse in a hurry with the arrival of Brown, who was once called the fastest player in the NFL by Carson Palmer.

"[Flacco] knows with Smokey that he just lets it fly and he’s not going to underthrow him," safety Eric Weddle said.

Last year, Baltimore's top three receivers -- Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin and Breshad Perriman -- were among the league's fastest, but Flacco managed a career-worst 5.72 yards per attempt.

The difference this time is Flacco's confidence in Brown. Throughout this offseason, Flacco has thrown the ball to Brown even when it looks like there is tight coverage.

"We just sit down and talk," Brown said. "We try to think of what Joe’s thinking of as a quarterback, and we get to one understanding. It’s been working out pretty well."

Brown is "electric"

Brown was the Ravens' first free-agent signing from another team. He signed a one-year prove-it deal worth $5 million.

Brown's breakthrough season came in 2015, when he had 65 receptions for 1,003 yards and seven touchdowns with Arizona. His 15.4 yards per catch ranked ninth among players with over 50 receptions.

But the next two seasons were rocky ones. He combined for 816 yards receiving in 2016 and 2017.

His addition in March was overshadowed by the drama surrounding the failed physical of Ryan Grant and the quick signing of Michael Crabtree.

Now, over two weeks into training camp, Brown is generating most of the buzz in the passing game. He is looking like the same player who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds at the 2014 NFL combine and was clocked running a route at 21 mph in 2015.

"JB is electric, man," wide receiver Willie Snead said. "He’s done a lot of things great since we stepped on the field here. I’m just really, really happy for him that he’s actually healthy and he’s making plays like that."

Health has been a major question mark for Brown. He was diagnosed with sickle cell trait as a member of the Cardinals in October 2016, when MRIs revealed no issues with his sore hamstrings. Carriers of this trait are more likely to experience muscle breakdown when doing intense exercise than those who don't have it.

In August 2017, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians noted that Brown's sickle cell issue remained a concern and slowed his healing process with a quadriceps injury. But Brown hasn't missed any practice time in Ravens camp, using massages and the hot and cold tubs.

"I just have been taking care of my body and investing more in my body -- trying to figure out new things to stay healthy," Brown said. "Right now, it’s working."

"One of great arms in history"

Like Brown, Flacco is healthier than he has been in years. Over the past two offseaons, he has been recovering from major knee surgery and a back injury.

Before Thursday's preseason game against the Rams, Flacco came onto the field for individual warmups, which he never did last year because he was dealing with his back issue. Flacco was effortlessly tossing the ball 40 yards downfield.

"Joe Flacco, to me, has one of the great arms maybe in the history of this league," quarterbacks coach James Urban said.

Flacco showed off that arm from 2010 to 2012. Over that time, Flacco's 46 completions on passes of 25 yards or longer ranked third in the NFL. Only Drew Brees (60) and Aaron Rodgers (48) connected on more longer throws.

In four playoff games in 2012, Flacco completed 19 of 40 passes (47.5 percent) that traveled at least 15 yards in the air, throwing five touchdowns and no interceptions.

The Ravens know Flacco can stretch the field with the best quarterbacks. The difficulty was finding the right combination.

With Brown, Baltimore sees the potential. The Ravens just want to temper expectations until the Flacco-Brown tandem proves itself in the regular season.

"It’s just a work in progress," coach John Harbaugh said. "Before we start patting ourselves on the back for completing passes, we probably should do it in games first."