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.
The 2014 season marks another milestone in transition for the Baltimore Ravens. After roster turnover following the 2012 Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens embark on their biggest philosophical change of the John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco era. This year, the offensive philosophy changes from the Air Coryell system to the West Coast Offense (WCO).
Much has been discussed, debated, and dissected about how the change in offensive philosophies will affect Flacco, rightfully so. He is the quarterback and the pressure is on him to perform, especially given the status that comes with his franchise quarterback contract and how his offensive weapons were upgraded this offseason. The progressions that Flacco needs to learn are not that different to what he has been doing with the Air Coryell, but how the passing concepts stack upon one another and how those progressions are tied to his footwork will be a major change.
That being said, 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 WCO?
Dan Bryden (@All22Bryden) assists Andy Hanes (@Andy_Hanes) of Raven Nation Army in projecting how the Ravens evolution to the WCO will affect the offensive players and the overall philosophy of the team. Part I one of this two-part piece dissected the differences between the Air Coryell offense and Kubiak’s West Coast variant, and it also discussed the implications that Kubiak will have on quarterback Joe Flacco.
In Part II, we will analyze the offensive line and the wide receivers as they make the transition to the WCO.
Contrary to what most were saying last year, the Ravens have been running a variation of the zone-blocking scheme (ZBS) since Harbaugh came aboard in 2008. Other than the 2008 season when the Ravens smashed teams with the three-headed running attack of Willis McGahee, Ray Rice, and Le’Ron McClain, the Ravens have not been a smash-mouth running team. They have implored a more finesse running attack.
Although the WCO inventor, Bill Walsh, didn’t use a heavy dose of a zone-blocking scheme, descendants from his coaching tree have used it for a number of reasons. Smaller linemen are often easier to find, and smaller linemen tend to fit well with the WCO—a rhythm-based offense that gets the ball out into the short-to-middle of the field quickly. These lighter linemen fit the zone blocking run game because the ZBS asks lineman to work in concert to create lateral displacement and can use a defender’s momentum against him by working leverage points. This is in contrast to “gap” or “power” rushing attacks that demands O-linemen to dislodge defenders from their assigned gaps to create a crease in a specified area.
The offensive line personnel that the Ravens are relying on this season fit the offensive scheme far more harmoniously than last year’s personnel/scheme combination. Last season, the Ravens offense was predicated on deeper routes meaning Flacco was instructed to take a high frequency of 7-step drops. This left Flacco susceptible to pass rushers, especially since the line in front of him was markedly porous. Add in the too-frequent 3WR package, the Ravens simply didn’t have enough man-power to keep rushers at bay.
The million dollar question: Do the Ravens have the right personnel on the offensive line to achieve the intended goal of running the ZBS and WCO?
The belief held here is that the Ravens have the right pieces. The guards, Marshall Yanda and Kelechi Osemele, are versatile enough to adapt to the ZBS and the WCO. Left tackle, Eugene Monore, is another solid fit. In fact, he is much more of a finesse player than mauler. Jeremy Zuttah was sought after because he has the tools necessary to run the ZBS, and he is strong enough to hold the point of attack.
Kubiak has historically been successful in using the ZBS to allow for manageable 2nd and 3rd down distances and the Ravens offensive line have the collective skill-set to thrive in the ZBS. The pink elephant in the room is the right tackle position. Is Rick Wagner the answer? There are reasons to be optimistic but we don’t yet have enough information to make an informed projection. Will the Ravens make a push to upgrade the position? Maybe, maybe not.
One thing that Kubiak has utilized in the past is blocking tight ends. According to Pro Football Focus, Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels are not stellar blockers (as if the eyeball didn’t tell you that already). They both rank in the bottom third of the league when comes to PFF’s metric of pass blocking efficiency. Right now the Ravens may carry two pass catching tight ends (Pitta and Daniels), a rookie blocking tight end (Crockett Gillmore), and possibly a fourth tight end that can block. Kubiak loves using 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, and two wide receivers) so he may want to carry an extra tight end—one that can block.
The outlook appears that the offensive line is well suited for the full shift to the ZBS of the WCO, but it will be a work in progress. The right side of the line is virtually an unknown and the tight ends are not well suited for the ZBS. The tight ends may be mainly asked to chip on their way out on pass routes, so that may help the right side on pass plays while limiting the exposure of their weak pass blocking skills.
To assuage the uneasiness of some readers, Kubiak has a reputation for utilizing play- and boot-action to take advantage of fast flowing linebackers and back-side defensive ends trying to defend the rushing attack. Most every lineman prefers to run block rather than pass block and being able to pick up solid gains through the air while asking the lineman to pass block via run blocking will allow for vast improvements from last year. The added bonus is that Flacco can either use a rolling pocket or boot away from defenders altogether to create extra time and space to throw the ball downfield.
Despite the gameplan of minimizing drive-killing down and distances, every offense must face 3rd and long at some point. Can the offensive line consistently pick up blitzes from, say, the Steelers and Bengals inside linebackers (the Ravens were dreadful last year allowing pressure up the middle on twists and stunts)? Can the backs and tight ends reliably add to the protection scheme? Will the tackles be able to maneuver upfield to intercept wide-nine edge rushers aiming to strip the ball from Flacco’s hand as he reaches his seventh drop step? These are all valid questions that remain to be answered but, as in any pass offense, the receivers play a massive role, too.
A Major Adjustment for the Wide Receivers
As outlined in Part I, the Coryell system is founded on timing and winning the one-on-one battles, particularly on the outside. Like the quarterback, the WCO requires its wide receivers to make many adjustments pre-snap. In the WCO, wide receivers are asked to do much more than what they were asked to do in the Coryell system. The Ravens’ wide receivers will need to make route conversions, adjust the depth of routes, make sight adjustments, make catches in traffic, and properly make the correct hot reads. To add to the difficulty, windows are spatially much smaller underneath and coverage confirmation needs to be done swiftly and correctly.
Plain and simple, the current receivers on the Ravens’ roster are more suited for the Coryell system, Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones in particular. Neither Smith nor Jones are known for their hands which makes catching the ball in traffic more difficult. They are burners built for the Coryell’s persistent down-field focus. Jones, in particular, struggled in Kubiak’s WCO while in Houston, and he is primarily an outside-the-numbers player. He will not be asked to do much from the slot, so Kubiak will be smart and keep him in situations where he will have success.
Though Smith and Jones are not classic fits for the WCO, they will excel if given the opportunity to catch the ball in space. Through the use of picks and rubs, the WCO has the chance to create solid opportunities for Smith and Jones to pick up yards after the catch. If used properly, their speed and elusiveness can be maximized .
The player that may be tailor-made for the WCO is Steve Smith. He is that tough, hard-nosed player that will make the difficult catches in traffic. If Flacco is off target, Smith has the catch radius to bail him out of trouble. It will be interesting to see if Steve Smith can make the adjustment to a classic slot receiver—he has had mixed results operating from the slot.
If he can make the cerebral leap, another player that may thrive in the WCO is Marlon Brown. According to PFF, Brown was the 11th rated player from the slot according to PFF’s catch rate metric. If given the opportunity, Brown may make an impact using his size and knack for catching the ball in tight spaces—as long as his minicamp performance was an aberration.
Most people will agree that the receiving tight end duo of Pitta and Daniels are the perfect fit for Kubiak’s WCO. If healthy, their numbers could be quite impressive by the end of the year. In addition, Pitta and Daniels should prove to be very effective on third down. Though they may not provide much support in the running game, Pitta and Daniels will thrive in the passing game.
A pass catching fullback is important in the WCO. Below is one of the signature plays of the WCO—a play-action bootleg where a receiver, tight end, and fullback flood the playside while the O-linemen sell the run by blocking the backside of the play. This isolates a defensive end (in red) who has to make a choice in whether to chase the quarterback—giving up an easy three or four yards to the fullback—or cover the fullback and allow the quarterback an easy scramble for a few yards.
All in all, like the quarterback and offensive line, the pass catchers are not a perfect fit for the WCO, but they may be able to make the appropriate adjustments given time. The wide receivers will be asked to think more which could initially slow down their games. Outside of Steve Smith, the current Ravens’ receivers are young and raw, and they will need time to learn how to read coverages and make the proper corrections pre- and post-snap. On the other hand, the tight ends are a perfect fit for the passing game of the WCO.
Honestly, this is a mixed bag. The WCO is good for Flacco, but Flacco may not be a good fit for the WCO. He has skills that translate well to the WCO, but he will need to work on his footwork and mechanics to improve his overall accuracy. He will need to make the proper pre-snap reads and learn to throw with anticipation.
Kubiak has mentioned on a few different occasions that it all starts with the running game, and he is right. If the running game gets straightened out, that means the offensive line is playing well. If the offensive line gets a grip on the ZBS, it will translate into the play-action shot plays downfield that will highlight Flacco’s big arm.
The WCO will certainly bring creativity, flexibility, and the ability to be multi-dimensional. Kubiak will be smart enough to put his players in the best positions to succeed.