Fantasy football is an unpredictable mistress. All of the signs on the field and from "experts" across the World Wide Web can point to one thing, then reality decides the complete opposite will be true. That's what happened with the Baltimore Ravens offense in 2013. Ray Rice had averaged 244.68 fantasy points per year since 2009, and Joe Flacco was coming off an impeccable postseason culminating in a Super Bowl win. The fantasy future looked bright in the Charm City. Or, so we thought. Ray Rice had his worst finish in fantasy scoring (28th) since his rookie season, while Flacco chucked a career-high 22 interceptions (to only 19 touchdowns). It was as disastrous as Ziggy Sobotka feeding his pet duck alcohol in season two of The Wire.
As the dust settled on this embarrassing season, former offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell departed for Detroit, and Gary Kubiak was ushered in as the new mind to mold the Baltimore offense. Using GameRewind I targeted a few ways that Gary Kubiak could help turn around the fortunes of the Ravens fantasy players.
Gary Kubiak runs a West Coast offense with a zone-blocking scheme similar to what the Ravens had been trying to do under Caldwell and his predecessor, Cam Cameron. The key difference here will be in the passing game, which will rely less on downfield strikes in favor of shorter, precisely-run routes. That being said, one trait of Kubiak's offenses is having a knack for the well-timed deep play-action shot that has helped make Andre Johnson a fantasy superstar down in Houston.
Escaping the danger zone
Now is not the time for the Ravens to listen to Kenny Loggins, no matter how catchy his 1980s soundtrack hits are. They need to fly away from the danger zone. Last season the Baltimore rushing attack epitomized the fantasy danger zone, as the team finished last in yards per carry, and 30th in rushing yards. According to BaltimoreRavens.com Kubiak's scheme is more of a "full zone scheme" than what the Ravens had run previously, which former fullback Vonta Leach saw as definite improvement. The offensive line remains in flux, but the addition of Jeremy Zuttah to replace Gino Gradkowski at center is an immediate upgrade. Moreover, Eugene Monroe and Marshall Yanda are well-suited to execute Kubiak's scheme, as they're athletic, quick-footed linemen. The cornerstone of Kubiak's rushing attack is the zone stretch play, which was what Arian Foster gashed defenses with for the past four seasons. Let's take a look at how it works.
All of the linemen make the appropriate reads and put a hat on the Patriots defenders. Owen Daniels correctly helps double outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich before sliding up to the second level to block Duron Harmon. This creates an easy crease for Tate to make one cut and burst through for the eight-yard score. For a more in-depth look at how the zone-blocking scheme works, head to Field Gulls, who did a phenomenal job of breaking down how Marshawn Lynch finds success in a similar scheme to what Kubiak runs.
Fantasy impact: When executed properly, Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme produces 1,000-yard rushers faster than Joe Flacco downs "Mighty Wings." The new Ravens offensive line, featuring a healthy, mean Kelechi Osemele, Zuttah and a (hopefully) capable replacement for Michael Oher should be able to open up more holes for Rice and Pierce. Rice, pending any possible suspension, should be targeted as a low-end RB2, while Pierce could have bench or even flex-appeal depending on how Kubiak deploys his two talented backs.
Playing with the boys
Apologies for the Kenny Loggins tangent running through this piece, but have you ever actually listened to the lyrics of "Playing with the Boys"? It's the song that underscores the infamous volleyball scene in Top Gun. It adds a whole new level to it once you actually listen to Loggins' lyrics. Anyway, I digress. With a productive running game comes the benefit of a potent play-action attack. Few teams rocked the play-action pass as effectively as the Texans in recent years. Case in point, on play-action passes last season Case Keenum averaged 9.9 yards per attempt, had a 100.7 quarterback rating and completed 62 percent of his attempts. And Keenum was an undrafted second-year player taking his first significant NFL snaps. Flacco is heralded as having one of the bigger arms in pro football, and with Torrey Smith and Steve Smith at his disposal, he could really find success in the play-action game under Kubiak.
Here's a look at one of Kubiak's patented play-action designs. Keenum fakes the zone-stretch play to Tate (the same play as above, but heading to the left) and rolls back to his right. You can see the entire defense drifting left with the play, leaving Andre Johnson in single coverage against Vontae Davis.
Johnson fakes the deep out, and turns up field instead. Keenum delivers a perfect strike and the result is a quick six points.
Fantasy impact: Flacco had 90.7 passer rating when using play-action in 2013, but just a 70.3 passer rating on plays with no play-action. Both of those numbers could rise with a more effective ground game and the guidance of Kubiak. Kubiak has 19 years as an offensive coordinator or head coach and has had a top-10 passing offense in nine of those seasons, and has only finished outside the top 20 three times. A former quarterback himself, it's not crazy to assume Kubiak will be able to reel in Flacco and get him back on track to where he was headed after the 2012 postseason. His arrival gives Flacco more upside as a QB2 heading into next season.
Most of Kubiak's recent offenses were a one-man show in the receiving game. But that worked (to a certain extent) when that one man was Andre Johnson. The Ravens don't have an Andre Johnson. What they do have is a respectable corps of pass-catchers that was bolstered by the arrival of veteran Steve Smith in free agency.
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It feels as if we're still waiting for Torrey Smith to break out as a No. 1 fantasy option, but he's perennially stuck around the 20th fantasy scorer among wide outs each and every year. Kubiak's arrival could lead to a slight uptick in fantasy production if Smith and Flacco connect on some of those deep play-action throws, but let's not look too much into this. Dennis Pitta should be an upgrade over Owen Daniels, and one-year removed from his hip injury looks ready to return to No. 1 tight end form. Steve Smith, on the other hand, will be a solid bye-week replacement, or a good seat filler on fantasy benches. Think of him as the Kevin Walter of Kubiak's Ravens offense and slot him in for roughly 750 receiving yards and five touchdown catches. Marlon Brown's deep-sleeper appeal takes a hit by the arrival of Smith, but Smith will be 35 next season so keep an eye on Brown as a waiver-wire target during the first few weeks of the season if Smith gets nicked with an injury or finally slows down.
Fantasy impact: Torrey Smith could drift closer to top-15 status, but don't reach too far for him based on that small of an increase. Steve Smith can fill depth on fantasy benches, while Dennis Pitta should be targeted as low-end No. 1 tight end, and a potential steal as he'll be available much later than the rest of the top tight ends in fantasy drafts this fall.
Kubiak is a proven commodity in terms of producing fantasy performers from his offenses, and with the talented pool of skill position players at his disposal in Baltimore the fantasy returns should be favorable. If Kelechi Osemele returns to health, and the Ravens next right tackle can rise to the challenge, the biggest gainers from Kubiak's arrival should be Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. The running back duo were frequently crushed at or behind the line of scrimmage last season, and both will fit well into the type of one-cut running that makes Kubiak's offense hum. The Ravens aren't loaded with potential fantasy superstars who are going to win fantasy matchups week-in and week-out. But the arrival of Gary Kubiak should help all of them become more solid contributors that won't lose you a week with a baffling performance like they tended to do last season. Which sometimes is all we can hope for in fantasy football -- avoiding an embarassing loss to our friends or coworkers.
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