Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh surprised the football world on Monday when he fired Cam Cameron with just three games remaining in the regular season and promoted Jim Caldwell to take over as offensive coordinator. While the timing certainly was not ideal, this move gives the Ravens an opportunity to tweak their offensive philosophy to better suit the talents of their personnel.
1) Build the game plan around Ray Rice.
Rice is unquestionably one of the top runners in the NFL, but he seemed to be underutilized in Cameron's system. Rice is averaging just 16.7 rushing attempts per contest through the Ravens' first 13 games in 2012, which is down from his career average of 18.4 rushing attempts in 58 starts since taking over as the full-time starter in 2009. What's so alarming about that statistic is the fact that Baltimore is 24-5 when Rice receives at least 20 carries, including a 4-1 mark in 2012. This should prompt Caldwell to steadily feed Rice the ball. In fact, the running back should be the focal point of each week's game plan.
With Rice averaging 4.6 yards per attempt, additional carries will not only keep the Ravens' offense on schedule, but they will enable Baltimore's big, physical offensive line to wear down opponents over the course of the game. After studying the Ravens' game tape, I would expect Caldwell to call more stretch plays and lead draws to take advantage of Rice's speed, quickness and cut-back ability.
Baltimore blocks the play perfectly at the point of attack, creating a huge crease in the middle of the defense:
Rice then jukes hard-charging Redskins safety Madieu Williams in space, blowing into the open field:
The result was a 46-yard gain.
In the following screengrab from the Ravens' Week 13 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Rice is aligned at tailback in an offset I-formation. At the snap, Baltimore will run a lead draw, with Rice heading to the right behind fullback Vonta Leach's block:
Rice hits the intended hole, then spots a crease to the backside:
Rice makes a nifty jump-cut and takes the ball against the grain:
After breaking free on this play, Rice scampered 34 yards for a touchdown.
Caldwell should certainly take advantage of Rice's remarkable running skills in the ground attack, but the offensive coordinator also must capitalize on Rice's talent as a receiver. Rice is an exceptional route runner out of the backfield; opponents have been unable to guard him with a single defender. This gives quarterback Joe Flacco an explosive weapon to target on underneath routes with minimal risk of a turnover or negative play.
2) Make Torrey Smith the No. 1 option in the passing game.
Smith is clearly the Ravens' most dynamic weapon in the passing game. He can overwhelm defenders on the perimeter with his blazing speed. The Ravens have capitalized on Smith's physical tools by routinely targeting him on an assortment of vertical routes outside the numbers. While these attempts have yielded big gains -- as evidenced by Smith's average of 17.5 yards per catch and 14 receptions of 20-plus yards (including four grabs of at least 40 yards) -- I believe Smith is ready for a bigger role in Baltimore's offense. He has shown glimpses of being an effective intermediate route runner throughout the course of the season. From running comebacks and curls on the outside to short crossing routes between the hashes, Smith has demonstrated the ability to get open against man or zone coverage, while also showcasing exceptional running skills with the ball in his hands. This should encourage Caldwell to feature Smith as the primary target in the route progression. One of the routes that I would expect to see in the coming weeks is the shallow cross.
In the following screengrab, taken from the Ravens' Week 12 win over the San Diego Chargers, Smith is aligned in the slot in a double-stacked formation:
At the snap, Smith catches the ball on a shallow crossing route at 5-yards depth:
Smith eluded several defenders on his way to picking up 54 yards on the play.
The Ravens could also adopt some of Caldwell's preferred routes from his time with the Indianapolis Colts to create more opportunities for Smith to make plays in the open field. One of those concepts is the smash-corner or smash-dig combination.
At the snap, Boldin and Smith will execute the snag-dig concept, with Smith running the snag at the bottom of the screen:
Smith snatches the pass, wheels back to the outside and runs away from the defense:
The result? A 19-yard touchdown.
By expanding Smith's role from strictly being a vertical playmaker to that of a traditional No. 1 receiver, the Ravens will give one of the most explosive playmakers in the AFC more opportunities to put the ball in the paint from anywhere on the field.
3) Keep Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson on the field as much as possible.
The Ravens have a pair of young, athletic tight ends with outstanding talent in Pitta and Dickson. Each poses a tremendous challenge for opposing defenses, with plus size and skill. The Ravens should tap into both of their potential by routinely utilizing "12" (one running back, two tight ends and two receivers) and "22" (two running backs, two tight ends and one receiver) personnel packages. This will enable Baltimore to use a variety of formations to create mismatches in the run or pass game.
In the running game, the use of 12 personnel prevents opponents from utilizing eight-man fronts to stop Rice. Baltimore can toy with alignments to create numerical advantages on the edges, spawning big-play opportunities. In the passing game, the use of 12 personnel allows the Ravens to put the defense in a quandary based on the unique talents of Pitta and Dickson. If the defense stays in base personnel, the Ravens can align Pitta out wide, to take advantage of his superior quickness, as compared to lumbering linebackers. If the opponent trots out a nickel package, Pitta's imposing size gives him an advantage over smaller defenders in space. Caldwell certainly is familiar with maximizing the 12 personnel package from his time in Indy, with Dallas Clark and a host of other tight ends playing prominent roles.
When the Ravens opt to use their 22 personnel package, they are able to create the illusion of a power running game to set up opportunities off play action. Baltimore has enjoyed success throughout the season using the package to generate explosive plays; I can envision Caldwell expanding on the grouping to help Flacco take more shots down the field. With big plays valued at a premium -- particularly in the postseason -- the Ravens should mix in a variety of multi-tight end formations to exploit potential mismatches.
4) Let Joe Flacco run the no-huddle offense.
The Ravens entered the season intent on utilizing the no-huddle offense to increase tempo. The quickened pace is advantageous for the offense, because it limits substitutions and forces defensive coordinators to simplify their calls, in the hopes of avoiding potential communication issues. This allows quarterbacks to work against vanilla fronts and coverages, leading to more big-play chances in the passing game.
Caldwell knows all about the intricacies of the no-huddle after spending years with Peyton Manning as his quarterback. While he didn't serve as the offensive play caller in Indianapolis, he was a trusted confidant as the Colts' quarterback coach, and he obviously remained so after ascending to the head-coaching position. This insight will enable him to tailor the Ravens' playbook to suit Flacco's strengths without overloading his mind with too many checks and adjustments. By incorporating a frenetic pace and a scaled-down game plan, Caldwell can simplify things for Flacco and eliminate some of the confusing exotic pre-snap looks from opposing defenses. This will allow Flacco to play with more confidence.
A more aggressive Flacco will produce more big plays and help the Ravens' offense regain the explosiveness that has been missing in recent weeks.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.