Why Joe Flacco is off to best start since his Super Bowl season

Joe Flacco threw for the most passing yards by a Baltimore Ravens quarterback against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night, although no one could tell by how he talked immediately following the 26-14 win.

"I’m frustrated, I really am," Flacco said. "I just felt like we left a lot of stuff out there."

For Flacco, higher production means higher expectations. He has thrown for 1,252 yards this season -- the most in his first four games since his 2012 Super Bowl-winning season.

Flacco has more passing yards than Tom Brady (918). He has thrown more touchdown passes (eight) than Aaron Rodgers (seven). And he has a higher passer rating (96.9) than Ben Roethlisberger (90.2).

Does Flacco feel like he’s throwing the ball better than in recent years?

"I’m not throwing the ball any different," he said. "We’re a better offense. We are. I’m playing better for sure, but offensive football takes all 11 guys."

Here are the three biggest reasons why Flacco is on pace for 5,008 yards:

Improved targets

John Brown is one of the best deep threats in football. Michael Crabtree has been pulling down contested catches. Willie Snead has been a monster on third downs.

This is quite a turnaround in talent for Flacco. His top three receivers from last year might not record a catch in 2018: Mike Wallace is on injured reserve after being the Eagles' No. 3 receiver, Jeremy Maclin is out of football and Breshad Perriman hasn't caught on anywhere after making five visits.

It's more than that the talent has improved. The chemistry is much better this season.

Flacco and the coaches have repeatedly talked about the increased trust in Brown, Crabtree and Snead.

"Those guys making plays for us has really just been so critical," Harbaugh said, "and we want to keep building on that."

Flacco and the Ravens' success in the passing game this year extends beyond these offseason additions at wide receivers. Six players have produced over 100 yards receiving and have caught at least one touchdown pass from Flacco this season.

On Sunday night, Flacco connected with 11 players, including some at crucial points. Tim White, a returner, and Maxx Williams, who is known as a blocking tight end, each converted third downs in the second half in Pittsburgh.

"There were just some really phenomenal plays made out there by our guys, so that’s really what you look for," coach John Harbaugh said. "The fact that it was 11 guys, which I didn’t even know about -- man, that is tough to defend. There is not one guy you can double, I know that. You can’t double everybody."

The Ravens will get even stronger when tight end Hayden Hurst makes his NFL debut. The first-round pick has been sidelined since foot surgery at the end of August, but the Ravens are optimistic that Hurst will play Sunday in Cleveland.

More aggressive playcalling

The Ravens are showing no fear when it comes to stretching the field.

Flacco has thrown 10 passes that have traveled at least 30 yards in the air. Only Matt Ryan has attempted more deep passes.

This addresses one of the biggest weaknesses in the offense from a year ago. In 2017, Flacco averaged a career-worst 5.72 yards per attempt. This year, he's averaging 7.3 yards per attempt.

Baltimore is also not going into conservative mode with a lead, which has been a point of contention for Flacco over the years. With a six-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Ravens threw the ball on third down, and did so creatively. Williams lined up at guard and caught a 22-yard pass.

"We’ve practiced that play for two years, and I don’t think there’s been one time where he’s actually gotten through the line of scrimmage clean enough to ever get into the progression," Flacco said. "It was great. I really do think Marty [Mornhinweg] called a great game, I think he’s been calling great games all year."


One of the bigger changes in the passing game has been with Flacco himself.

In 2016, Flacco missed all of the spring workouts because he was recovering from season-ending knee surgery. In 2017, he was sidelined for all of training camp and the preseason games because of a herniated disk.

After not practicing until eight days before last year's opener, Flacco's first four games were staggeringly bad. He passed for 601 yards, throwing four touchdowns and six interceptions. His passer rating of 65 was his worst since his 2008 rookie season.

That's why there was excitement to see what Flacco could do when fully healthy, dating back to March.

"A healthy Joe Flacco plus the weapons, I’m sure there’s a math term for that," Harbaugh said at the NFL owners meetings. "Exponential. It’s exponential. That’s what I’m counting on."

The Ravens have certainly shown growth. Baltimore finished as the NFL's No. 29 passing attack last season. The Ravens are currently No. 8.

What Flacco brings this year is the ability to extend plays. Being healthier, he has been able to move and avoid pressure.

Outside the pocket, Flacco has competed 12 of 17 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns. Flacco's 133.5 rating is second to Jimmy Garoppolo's (139.3).

But, as Flacco has pointed out, no one is satisfied with what the passing attack has done so far.

"I think Joe [Flacco] said it [Sunday night], and the fact that he’s a little perturbed with the fact that we didn’t do better ... boy, you want to hear that as a coach," Harbaugh said. "I want our guys to be hungry, to be great, and that takes work."