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The key to Joe Flacco’s success

He may not be Brady, Brees or Rodgers, but the 11-year veteran has held his own with big dogs this season.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After getting a decisive 26-14 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco pretty much admitted what many in Baltimore’s sports media circles were thinking — If he’s healthy, gets good weapons and a solid offensive line, he can succeed.

“I’m not throwing the ball any different,” Flacco said postgame. “We’re a better offense. We are. I’m playing better for sure, but throwing the ball and all of that stuff, but offensive football takes all eleven guys.”

Flacco carved the Steelers up, going 28-for-42 on passes for 363 yards and two touchdowns. The 363 yards that he threw for were the highest that a Ravens quarterback has thrown for against the Steelers (previously set by Jeff Blake with 336 in 2002). His passer rating was a strong 109.5 and he had 8.64 yards per attempt, his highest of the season. He also hit 11 different receivers through four quarters against Pittsburgh.

Through four games, Flacco has gone 110-for-171 (64.3%) passing for 1,252 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions. He holds a 96.9 passer rating. His two picks came against Cincinnati in a short week on the road, but outside of those flubs, Flacco has looked very poised.

At this point last season, Flacco went 73-for-118 (61.9%) on his passes with 601 passing yards, four interceptions and six interceptions. He also had a passer rating of 65.0.

Last year was a complete far cry from this season, at least when it comes to the personnel that surrounds Flacco and his health.

During the offseason, Baltimore completely overhauled the receiving corps — signing John Brown, Willie Snead IV and Michael Crabtree, as well as drafting Jaleel Scott and Jordan Lasley. They also added two tight ends in Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews in the 2018 NFL Draft.

In the prior season, Baltimore had Mike Wallace as their number one receiver with Jeremy Maclin and Chris Moore as the number two and three receivers respectively. Moore is now the fourth receiver, Maclin is out of the NFL and Wallace is on the Philadelphia Eagles’ injured reserve list.

Baltimore also had Ben Watson as their leading pass-catcher last season as the tight end. He has since departed to New Orleans, but both Maxx Williams and Andrews (both with 119 receiving yards) have nearly the same amount of yards as he does (157). Add that in with an Andrews touchdown, plus 104 yards from Nick Boyle and the Ravens have a much more formidable pass-catching quartet from the tight end position.

At offensive line, Flacco has Ronnie Stanley at left tackle, Alex Lewis at left guard, Matt Skura at center, Marshal Yanda at right guard and James Hurst at right tackle. Lewis missed the entire 2017 season with shoulder surgery. Yanda missed 14 games after breaking his ankle in Week 2 of last year. Now with both healthy and Hurst playing solidly in the passing game at right tackle, Baltimore’s pass protection has been key to their success on offense.

“On defense, everyone can mess up and one guy can make the play,” Flacco continued. “On offense, that rarely happens. Everyone has to play the same football. When I’m out there throwing for a lot of yards today, it’s not like today was one of the toughest Pittsburgh Steelers games I’ve ever played. I’ve played really tough games against these guys and probably have thrown for like 150 [yards]. But. I take a lot of pride in some of those games, because we played our heart out there. I think our guys got open.”

The most important aspect is Flacco’s health. In the past two seasons, Flacco came back from a major knee injury and a back injury. Both of these ailments are debilitating to a quarterback’s mobility and ability to drive the ball downfield. Both were obvious issues for Flacco last season and his yards per attempt especially took a hit in 2017 (5.9).

Juxtaposed with a fully healthy camp and a litany of receiving threats, Flacco is now averaging 7.3 yards per attempt, which would be the second-highest of his career after 2010 (7.4).

This has been something that has been discussed for Flacco’s entire career. How would he look if he has solid weapons? In 2012 with Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones, Ray Rice and Dennis Pitta, Flacco won a Super Bowl. Fast forward two seasons, Flacco still had Smith, but lost Jones (cut), Boldin (traded) and Rice (suspended). The Ravens added Steve Smith Sr. and Owen Daniels — two veteran pass catchers that would help Flacco get to the AFC Divisional Round.

None of the receiving corps that Flacco has had in the past equals the amount of potential that this one offers. Brown (388 yards) is on pace to break Michael Jackson’s single-season receiving yardage record (1,201 yards). He also has three touchdown grabs. Snead IV has 198 yards and a touchdown and Crabtree has 184 yards and a touchdown.

The most underrated quality is that each receiver attacks a different part of the field. Brown averages 22.5 yards per catch from the “Y” receiver position. Snead IV averages 11.0 from the slot. Crabtree averages 10.2 yards per catch from the “X” receiver position. Andrews averages 11.9, while Williams is at 9.9 and Boyle has 11.6 yards per reception.

Another thing that has aided Flacco is the improved playcalling from offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. Some of goes with Flacco’s health, as Mornhinweg was less tempted to call deep shots with a quarterback who had an ailing back. The playcalling has also gotten creative, lining Williams off of the line and in between the center and guard with an unbalanced line.

Baltimore has also gotten their running backs involved in the passing game, with Buck Allen and Alex Collins holding a receiving touchdown of their own. Both running backs have been split out wide, set up in the slot and lined up in the backfield as receivers.

This offseason was about correcting their mistakes in the passing game and modernizing the offense. Baltimore did that, plus more. Now Flacco is well on his way to having one of his best seasons yet.