Such was true when working on this post with Dan Bryden (@All22Bryden). Dan’s thorough analysis and viewpoint of the game makes you feel like you are sitting in the film room cutting up tape with a coach. His sophisticated, yet put-into-layman's-terms, analysis runs through this entire post. Without his input, this would have just been idea that needed to be better fleshed out. It was a true pleasure to initiate an idea to him through social media and see what came of it as we shared thoughts and ideas about football and the Baltimore Ravens.
After last season’s massive change to the Ravens’ Super Bowl XLVII championship team, 2014 brings with it more personnel shuffling. With four holdovers, the defense is barely recognizable this season compared to the 2012 season.
However, this is not the massive change that has Ravens’ fans curious for the 2014 season. What has piqued most people’s curiosity is the arrival of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and his version of the West Coast offense (WCO). And there is no way of sugarcoating it—this is a substantial systematic change for the Ravens.
Much has been discussed, debated, and dissected about how the change in offensive philosophies will affect Flacco in particular. As the quarterback of a new and somewhat complex system, the pressure lies on him to take advantage of the weapons afforded him over the off-season and live up to his big money contract. But, how will the WCO mesh with the other players on the Ravens’ roster? How will the receivers, offensive linemen, and running backs fit into Kubiak’s system?
Dan Bryden (@All22Bryden) joins Andy Hanes (@Andy_Hanes) of Raven Nation Army to offer their take on how the Ravens evolution into the Kubiak offense will affect the current offensive roster and the overall philosophy of the team. Part I one of this two-part piece will dissect the differences between the Cameron/Caldwell offense and the Kubiak West Coast variant, and it will discuss why Joe Flacco may struggle to mesh his current skillset with this new approach. Part II will address the effect the Kubiak will have on the offensive linemen and the skill positions.
Out with the old, in with the new
Last year’s Ravens offense was abysmal—the 29th ranked team in total offense. On paper, and based on Flacco’s superb playoff run in 2012, the 2013 offensive scheme seemed to fit Flacco’s strengths. The offense was predicated on intermediate-to-deep throws particularly to outside speedsters and tight ends up the seams. Additionally, a heavy reliance on run-game success would open up voids in the secondary where Flacco could throw into wide open windows across the middle of the field. Unfortunately for fans, the rushing attack suffered due to poor offensive line play, sure-handed tight end Dennis Pitta was less than 100% when he was on the field, and the receiving corps did their best to overcome positional naivete and win one-on-one battles down the field. Flacco was pressured on a career high 35.6% of his dropbacks and his overall play declined when many hoped he’d take another developmental step beyond his 2012 postseason play.
The Air Coryell, of which Cameron is a loyal disciple, is similar in schematic design to the WCO in that both systems attempt to use multiple receiving options (including pass catching tight ends) in an attempt to force to defense to cover the entire field. With both systems having comparable goals, the “new” read/progression system that Flacco needs to master is not the dramatic change that some have suggested. For example, many have discussed Flacco’s footwork as a major key to success in the Kubiak offense. However, like most offensive systems, both the Coryell and WCO are predicated on timing and rhythm where the footwork is tied to the route depth and combinations. The footwork will likely remain the same under Kubiak. The difference will be the connection between reads and steps. For example:
The Kubiak system is oriented toward timing and short route-running. Flacco’s previous systems included more seven-step drops which inadvertently allowed more freelancing by Flacco in order to wait for deeper receivers to emerge. In itself, footwork will not change in the Kubiak system. The reads, however, will be more rigidly tied to timing and stepping, to the extent to which Flacco has never experienced.
The differentiation that the Kubiak scheme offers in flexibility is what should have Ravens fans excited. This new system helps the personnel win the one-on-one battles. Its use of rubs and stacks in the short passing game creates separation for receivers. This approach does not stretch the field vertically as much as it stretches the field horizontally. It will attack the field by the use of running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends running routes at various depths which puts stress on the different levels of the defense. The use of depth combinations creates open space and allows the short passing game to manufacture yards after the catch—a staple of the WCO since its inception.
To a certain extent, the WCO simplifies things. Legendary San Francisco 49er coach Bill Walsh, the innovator and inventor of the WCO, was a big proponent of using multiple receivers (three or more) on each pass play. His philosophy was to eliminate some of the reads a quarterback needs to make. In a multiple receiver set within another system, the quarterback may need to make five reads. Walsh cut that down to three reads. Walsh thought it would take too long to survey the entire field. The “play-side” or “read-side” is determined pre-snap based on the defense. This is all tied into the protection scheme up-front by the offensive linemen.
Is the Kubiak scheme good for Flacco?
This is the question on Ravens fans’ minds. The answer is yes and no. Let’s start with why the new West Coast variant is good for Flacco.
Although the WCO creator Bill Walsh did not use a heavy dose of zone blocking in the running game, disciples of his system have found success with pairing the WCO and a zone blocking scheme (ZBS). Offensive lineman who fit the ZBS are generally (but not always) smaller and more nimble. One can sacrifice size in a rhythm-based passing offense because the ball should be thrown within a specified time-frame often based on a pre-snap survey of the defensive secondary. Assuming the Ravens stick to Kubiak’s roots and see success with the ZBS as its base rushing attack, Flacco can manipulate the run defenders via play/boot-action and further open up passing lanes. As a product, Flacco will be asked to throw while rolling out of the pocket, an area in which he has thrived in the past. Additionally, play-action against seven- and eight-man boxes will open up deep routes to the fleet-footed Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones.
A West Coast tinged offense will almost certainly raise Flacco’s completion percentage and minimize the number of risks he is forced to take due to being flushed from his set-point (the spot where the linemen will protect).
Unfortunately, Flacco is not the perfect candidate for the Kubiak system...yet. To this point in Flacco’s career, he has relied on his big-time arm to defeat safeties or to hit tight ends in stride up the seams. Flacco has never been known as an “efficient” quarterback who marches down the field and takes what the defense gives. Flacco is a risk-taker who has historically picked up yardage in huge chunks (we know he’s never been afraid to draw pass interference).
Flacco has never been asked to consistently diagnose defensive coverage schemes and throw the ball with anticipation into tight windows over the middle. Up to this point, he has never really had to throw open his receivers—he has been more of a see-it-throw-it type of player. With quick-passing comes congestion in the underneath portions of the field. In order to be successful, Flacco must be willing to throw passes prior to receivers making their breaks. Additionally, save for Pitta and Steve Smith, Flacco does not currently possess receiving options that consistently win against tight coverage. Flacco will be asked to squeeze passes into transient holes on a consistent basis, especially if the rushing attack does not make giant strides from a year ago. Without a reliable running game, Flacco will struggle while he acclimates to this new offensive philosophy.
Although Flacco’s deep accuracy was poor last year, he has generally thrived when throwing deep. During his first five years in the league, Flacco has averaged a 37.8 accuracy percentage on passes that travel 20 or more yards downfield, and he has been a league leader on total attempts of these type of passes, according to Pro Football Focus. Over that span of time, he has amassed 44 touchdowns against 15 interceptions on deep throws. In the 2013 season, Flacco was accurate on only 26.1 percent of said throws, while producing only one touchdown against eight interceptions. The porous offensive line surely contributed to rushed throws, but Flacco’s timing and rhythm was off all year. However, history suggests that he will rebound when throwing deep downfield.
Since 2008, a Kubiak-led offense has averaged 3.26 deep throw attempts (>20 yards) per game. Over the same span of time, Flacco has averaged 4.75 deep attempts per games. Gary Kubiak would not have gotten to where he is without suiting his scheme to his personnel, so the number of passes greater than 20 yards he calls is sure to increase compared to previous years. As one of his strengths, it would be unfortunate to see Flacco minimize his long-ball in lieu of the shorter routes designed to enhances run-after-catch yards.
As will be discussed in Part II, the change of an offensive system does not only fall to the quarterback. It will involve others making changes as well. Part II of this piece will dissect the changes that need to be made by the offensive linemen and receivers so that the transition to the WCO will be complete. As we have seen in the past, if Flacco has a solid offensive line and receivers that can catch, he can be highly productive. But, this is a change in offensive systems which goes well beyond the play of the quarterback.