Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome honored his vow to upgrade the offense during this offseason. The Ravens have solidified and improved the offensive line—re-signing left tackle Eugene Monroe, trading for center Jeremy Zuttah offseason, and getting back a healthy Kelechi Osemele. The Ravens have added a tough playmaker in wide receiver Steve Smith, re-signed receiver Jacoby Jones, and brought in two disciples of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak—tight end Owen Daniels and running back Justin Forsett.
Still, there are certainly vital pieces that need to be addressed. Team needs include an upgrade at right tackle, adding another tight end, inserting depth into the running back corps, and the team should bolster the wide receiver position by drafting and grooming a young pass catcher. The Ravens still have time and resources to continue shaping the roster—the upcoming draft is chockfull of talent this year, and the team will persist to mine the free agent list, a list that will certainly grow as post draft and June roster cuts are made.
As we sit here in April, the Ravens offense seems to have many options. There is speed on the outside with Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. The intermediate routes will be manned by Steve Smith, Dennis Pitta, and Owen Daniels. Those three will also provide options from the slot and the ability to gain the tough yards in key situations. The team has options in the running game with the continued focus of the zone-blocking scheme and the personnel of Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce, Forsett, and H-back Kyle Juszczyk. There are varied alternatives in the red zone with Marlon Brown, Steve Smith, Pitta, and Daniels. And most importantly (for the most part), the team has depth as Jones and Brown are in supportive roles, and younger players like Aaron Mellette, Deonte Thompson, and whomever is added during the draft can complement the starters.
The construction of this year’s roster stresses depth and balance; which, is quite different from last year’s roster where the trade of Anquan Boldin and the injury to Dennis Pitta altered the team’s plans drastically. How the Ravens reacted to this mistake is very reminiscent to how they reacted to the season following their first Super Bowl. Have you noticed how the Ravens always have running back depth since the 2001 season? I think the injury to Jamal Lewis taught them that lesson. I think last year’s situation taught the Ravens that there is a need for depth and balance rather than relying on mainly two players—last year the chips fell to Torrey Smith and Pitta, and once Pitta went down there were no solid options behind him.
This brings me to my main point…. The Ravens need to structure their offensive system so that there is versatility. They need to be creative with their personnel groupings so that they can better utilize the entire offensive roster. Last year, the Ravens were too limited, and thus, they were too predictable.
Many have suggested, including a recent piece by ESPN’s Jamison Hensley, that Kubiak’s influence and preference, coupled with the signing of tight end Owen Daniels, points to the fact that the Ravens will be embracing the 12 personnel grouping (one running back, two tight ends, and two wide receivers) as their base personnel grouping. This is not an old idea, as I think this was the plan going into the 2013 season. Matt Vensel (in Minnesota covering the Vikings) suggested this very idea last year, and I did a piece on it last year as well.
The 12 personnel group is very flexible, and it is becoming more and more adopted by teams because it allows a team to run a power run game with the two tight ends (sans fullback), yet it still provides opportunities for three and four pass catchers when splitting out the tight ends. You can run a face-paced no-huddle offense with this personnel grouping because it, theoretically, allows a team to both run and pass from the same personnel group. A Ravens’ base-personnel of running back Rice, tight ends Pitta and Daniels, and receivers Torrey Smith and Steve Smith is formidable. (Granted, Pitta and Daniels are not the best blockers so the running game is still a work in progress).
While the 12 personnel may be the preferred base offensive grouping, I maintain that the Ravens need to be versatile and multi-dimensional so that they are able to take advantage of the entire roster. What does Kubiak’s past in Houston tell us about what we can expect for the Ravens’ offense in 2014?
Thanks to Pro Football Focus analyst Gordon McGuiness (his work for PFF analyzing Signature Stats and his PFF coverage of the Ravens is top-notch, unique, and comprehensive), I was able to secure data that will help in my analysis. Below is a chart showing the breakdown of the three main personnel groupings for the Ravens and Texans for 2014:
What is so striking about this data is that there was an incredible amount of balance from Kubiak’s Texans offense. The 11 personnel was the most prevalent personnel package for both the Texans and the Ravens. But as Hensley points out, the Texans ran the most plays in the league with multiple tight ends while the Ravens ran the least amount of plays in the league with this formation. Continuing the comparison, Kubiak’s Texans offense had similar limitations as the Ravens last year, as the Texans were without Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster and tight end Owen Daniels for more than half of the year. So, he did allow his offense to become stagnant and one-dimensional? No, he still tried to maintain a level of versatility.
The current NFL is very much a passing league. Most teams are trending towards the use of three wide receivers, de-emphasizing the use of the fullback in the power run-game. The 11 package is becoming the standard. But, as I stated above, the multiple tight end formation allows for more creativity and flexibility, and many teams are seeing the potential. A team truly becomes dynamic when it can do more than one thing well. The Ravens need to secure balance within their offense because relying on one personnel package causes predictability, and it puts too much pressure on a small amount of individuals.
Breathing diversity into the offense is very-well needed. The Ravens can, and should, be doing this to their offense. They have collected an assortment of talent throughout this offseason that has strengths in various areas. The coaching staff needs to be crafting identities and specific roles that accentuate the collective strengths of talent on the roster. The coaching staff needs to thrust the younger players into places where they will succeed.
One criticism I have had of John Harbaugh and his coaching staff in the past is that there seemed to be a level of reluctance when trusting younger players. I am all for players earning their playing time and role on the team. But from the outside-looking-in, there seemed to be a tentative atmosphere where younger players played too tightly, afraid of making a mistake. I am hoping that this new staff creates a culture of risk-taking and that players are “allowed” to fail in order that they can grow and mature as contributors.
The hire of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, along with his offensive history, coupled with the talent accumulated thus far in the offseason, provide ample opportunities for this Ravens offense to become a less predictable and more versatile product. They need to seize this opportunity while the iron is hot.
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An avid sports fan, and a passionate Ravens fan. However, I don't always wear the purple-shaded glasses.