When Jim Caldwell replaced Cam Cameron as the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator following a Week 14 loss to the Washington Redskins, few were expecting the first-time play caller to resurrect an offense that had struggled to find an identity for most of the season. However, not only has Caldwell given the Ravens an identity, he's transformed the unit into an explosive postseason scoring machine.
With a showdown looming against a rugged San Francisco 49ers defense in Super Bowl XLVII, I thought I would dig into the All-22 Coaches Film to see how Caldwell rejuvenated Baltimore's offense. Here's what I discovered during my tape study:
1) The Ravens' reshuffled offensive line has been outstanding in the postseason.
The offensive line is the foundation of every explosive attack, and that's certainly been the case with the Ravens since Caldwell took over. The unit has hit its stride in the playoffs, with Baltimore surrendering just four sacks in three postseason games. Additionally, the unit has blown open huge holes for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, enabling Baltimore to re-emerge as a dominant force on the ground.
The Ravens' resurgence has coincided with the insertion of Bryant McKinnie into the starting lineup at left tackle. The former Pro Bowler struggled with injuries and weight issues during the offseason and training camp, but he finally returned to health near the end of the regular season. McKinnie has been outstanding while manning the blind side, neutralizing explosive pass rushers like the Indianapolis Colts' Dwight Freeney and the Denver Broncos' Von Miller off the edges without assistance from the tight end or running back.
McKinnie's on-field rebirth also allowed the Ravens to move Michael Oher back to right tackle and kick Kelechi Osemele to left guard. With their collection of big, athletic blockers, the Ravens have been able to punish opponents with a physical running game.
In the screengrab below, taken from Baltimore's divisional-round win over the Denver Broncos, the Ravens align in a dubs formation, with Rice at the dot back position:
The play is perfectly blocked at the point of attack, leading to a 32-yard gain for Rice:
Now, it's certainly uncommon for an offensive line to gel in such a short time span, but the proof is in the pudding. Just look at this offense's performance in the playoffs: The Ravens have scored 90 points in three games, averaging more than 400 yards of total offense. Most importantly, the Ravens have scored touchdowns on eight of 10 red-zone trips.
2) Caldwell has given the Ravens' offense an identity by building game plans around the ground attack.
Under Cameron, the Ravens rushed the ball just 25.7 times per game. Although that number placed the team right around the league average at the time (through 13 games), the lack of commitment to the ground attack prevented the Ravens from consistently staying on schedule. This has changed dramatically since Caldwell's appointment as the offensive play caller. In the Ravens' past six games (including the postseason), the team has averaged 35.7 rushing attempts for 155.3 yards per game. Most importantly, the Ravens have run on 61 percent of their first-down plays under Caldwell, allowing the offense to avoid facing the kinds of long-yardage situations on second and third down that play into the hands of the defense.
Caldwell's decision to emphasize the running game is understandable, given the talents of Rice and Pierce. From a personnel standpoint, the Ravens' dynamic running back tandem is unquestionably the strength of the offense. Rice, in particular, is one of the best running backs in the NFL. He has posted four straight 1,000-yard seasons, consistently ranking among league leaders in rushing yards and total yards from scrimmage. The Ravens have been extremely successful when they've made Rice the focal point of the offense. In fact, when he receives at least 20 carries, the Ravens are 26-5, including a 6-1 mark in 2012. This telling statistic reveals Rice's tremendous impact.
Pierce is underrated on the national scene because of his role as Rice's understudy, but those familiar with the Ravens certainly understand his value to the offense -- especially since Caldwell took over play-calling duties. Under Caldwell's direction, Pierce has rushed for 401 yards on 68 attempts (5.8 yards per carry) in the past six games. He has posted two 100-yard games during that span while demonstrating big-play ability as a rugged runner between the tackles.
To capitalize on Pierce's abilities, Caldwell has frequently called power and off-tackle running plays with the young back in the game. In the video clip to the right, taken from the Ravens' Week 16 blowout of the New York Giants, Pierce takes a lead draw for a 78-yard gain. The beauty of the play lies not only in the exceptional blocking at the point of attack, but also in the outstanding vision and instincts Pierce displays while finding a crease in the middle of the defense.
3) Increased emphasis on the vertical passing game has helped Joe Flacco thrive in the playoffs.
Quarterbacks are judged by many things, but the most misleading statistic is completion percentage. Depending upon the structure of the passing game within an offensive system, quarterbacks can ring up gaudy numbers without taking significant risks as a passer. While some quarterbacks have been able to guide their respective teams to championships utilizing a "dink and dunk" approach, the overwhelming majority of winning quarterbacks can make big-time throws, particularly down the field.
I've followed Flacco's game throughout the years, and it's obvious that he is an A-plus arm talent with the ability to make accurate throws to every area of the field. He excels at throwing the ball deep down the middle of the field or along the sideline following a play fake in the backfield. Although these throws are more difficult to consistently complete, the big gains netted on bombs can demoralize an opponent while energizing the offense.
Caldwell definitely took Flacco's strength as a player into account while crafting the past six game plans. He has made the deep ball the focal point of the passing game, designing a number of plays that enable Flacco to take shots down the field against one-on-one coverage on the perimeter. Caldwell has cleverly crafted plays that enable Flacco to go up top, from go-routes and double moves performed on the outside of spread formations to deep posts executed in run-heavy looks.
In the following screen grab, taken from the wild-card-round win over the Indianapolis Colts (Caldwell's old team), the Ravens are aligned in an ace-slot formation, with Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith stacked at the top of the screen. Smith will trail Boldin up the field before running a deep post down the middle. Boldin will run a double move on the outside, to exploit the single coverage:
When Boldin chops his feet to simulate a comeback route, the cornerback hesitates, creating an opportunity for Boldin to blow by on a vertical route:
Flacco throws the ball deep and away from the coverage, resulting in a 46-yard gain for the Ravens:
With Caldwell unleashing Flacco as a deep-ball thrower to complement a punishing power running game, the Ravens' offense has emerged as an explosive unit that can effectively counter every conceivable defensive tactic.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.