The Baltimore Ravens fielded a scattershot offense in 2013 -- and, not coincidentally, they missed the playoffs, despite having won the Super Bowl one season earlier. Now, with new coordinator Gary Kubiak taking the reins, the unit could be poised for a revival that returns John Harbaugh's team to contender status.
Kubiak -- who replaced Jim Caldwell after Caldwell left Baltimore to become head coach of the Detroit Lions -- is a clever schematic designer with a history of success as both a coordinator (most notably with the Denver Broncos for 11 seasons) and head coach (of the Houston Texans from 2006 to 2013). He can craft a dynamic passing game that accentuates the strengths of his quarterback, and he's also able to lean on a powerful running game that makes stars of the men carrying the ball between the tackles. His Texans posted top-five seasons in total offense and passing offense from 2008 to 2010, led the NFL in passing in 2009 and ranked second in rushing in 2011.
1) Joe Flacco will become a truly elite quarterback.
It's uncommon for a former Super Bowl MVP to not be widely regarded as one of the top quarterbacks in the game, but that is the case with Flacco, whose maddening inconsistencies as a thrower and suspect judgment under duress can overshadow his impressive arm talent and physical tools. He hasn't shown he can consistently carry the offense, which is why the Ravens have often relied on their ground game and a rugged defense in the past. And while Flacco did obviously deliver the goods in helping Baltimore capture the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XLVII, the young signal-caller seemed to take a step back in 2013, finishing with a passer rating of 73.1 and a dismal touchdown-to-interception ratio of 19:22.
That's why the Ravens were wise to add Kubiak, who has a proven track record of getting excellent production from the quarterback position. Think of Matt Schaub, whom Kubiak turned into a two-time Pro Bowler with a quarterback-friendly system in Houston that featured a number of high-percentage throws and selective deep shots to keep the defense on its heels. Kubiak also used a carefully crafted play-action passing game to create bigger windows on intermediate and deep attempts. If the quarterback in his system is patient and willing to work through his progressions quickly to find the open receiver, he should complete 60 to 65 percent of his throws and finish with a passer rating around the mid-90s. (Schaub had a completion percentage of 60 percent or better in all seven of his seasons with the Texans, and a rating of 90-plus in five.)
Flacco has more talent and better physical skills than many of the other quarterbacks who have thrived in the system, which makes it easy to envision him blossoming into a consistent and spectacular playmaker under Kubiak. The seventh-year pro will have the opportunity to take more "gimme" throws, which will boost his completion percentage and help the offense stay on track. He'll also benefit from a complementary play-action passing game that will help him find a rhythm in the pocket.
Confidence is important for quarterbacks. Kubiak's QB-friendly system should help Flacco play up to the expectations that come with the big award on his résumé.
2) The new zone-based blocking scheme will invigorate the ground game.
The Ravens' anemic rushing game contributed greatly to their woes last season. They finished 30th in the NFL with 83 rushing yards per game, while running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce averaged a paltry 3.1 and 2.9 yards per carry, respectively. Numbers like those simply won't get the job done, particularly in the AFC North, where tough defenses typically reside.
With Kubiak coming on board, the Ravens are scrapping their power-based scheme in favor of a zone system that better suits their personnel -- from the offensive line to the running backs -- and gives them a chance to field a potent ground game. Here's how it can affect Baltimore's running backs in 2014:
Rice, who has been suspended for the first two games of the season under the NFL's personal conduct policy, declined statistically in 2013, finishing with 660 rushing yards -- after posting 1,143 in 2012 -- and just four touchdowns. But he could become productive again in 2014. He still has outstanding vision, balance and body control, and while he appeared to lose a step, he remains quick enough to reach the second level or even break off runs of 20-plus yards when given enough room.
In the Ravens' new system, Rice's skills should be enhanced by a one-cut rule that will require him to make quick decisions at the line of scrimmage and commit to taking a positive gain as soon as he spots a hole. Rice has excelled at running outside zone plays throughout his career, and I would expect him to do well with the stretch play that's been a staple in Kubiak's scheme. If he can accept a lesser role and allow Pierce to shoulder some of the load, Rice could find a way to top the 1,000-yard mark in an efficient manner.
Pierce, who is slated to play as part of a rotational system, could emerge as the Ravens' workhorse runner by this season's end. He'll get an immediate opportunity to prove he can handle it when he steps into the starter's role in Rice's absence.
When given a chance to carry the ball extensively, Pierce has shown good vision and balance with the ball in his hands. He's decisive, runs behind his pads and finishes with authority. Of course, critics would point to his average of 2.9 yards a pop as cause for concern, but the film suggests that he is an ideal fit for a zone-based scheme predicated on decisiveness and toughness.
In the video clip to the right, Pierce displays the quickness, explosiveness and physicality that coaches covet for this scheme. The Ravens are intent on utilizing the stretch play to anchor the running game, and they could end up leaning on Pierce.
3) The play-action passing game will create huge gains.
Kubiak is unquestionably one of the top play designers in the NFL, someone who does a great job using complementary passes to accentuate his runs. Given the Ravens' potential to field a top-10 running game, I would expect Kubiak to marry his run-pass concepts to produce major gains through the air. That's how he built the Houston Texans into one of the NFL's most explosive offenses, and he certainly can follow suit with the Ravens, who have a dynamic, speedy and athletic receiving corps. Here's how he could take advantage of his top targets:
Though he's rarely mentioned among the top receivers in the NFL, Smith quietly has become one of the most explosive pass catchers around. He has 17 receptions of 40-plus yards in three pro seasons, and he's coming off a breakout campaign that saw him top the 1,000-yard mark for the first time. He also showed he's versatile and consistent enough to handle having the No. 1 role in the passing game.
I believe Kubiak will feature Smith prominently, particularly on play-action passes with a variety of crossing routes at every level. By putting Smith on the move across the field, the Ravens will enable their top receiver to utilize his speed and explosiveness to run away from defenders. He also will be in an ideal position to tack on significant yardage after the catch with his burst and running skills.
One particular play from the Ravens' Week 15 win over the Detroit Lions last season reveals how Kubiak can take advantage of Smith's skills with movement-based concepts. Smith is aligned at the bottom of the screengrab below; he will be instructed to run a deep crossing route. Jacoby Jones, who is positioned at the top of the screen, is assigned to run a clear-out route through the middle of the secondary. Flacco will fake a handoff in the backfield before looking to throw:
The play-action fake lures the linebackers to the line of scrimmage, leaving a void for Smith over the middle:
Flacco drills a bullet to Smith, who hauls it in for a 25-yard gain.
The fifth-year pro has all of the tools to blossom into a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end in the Ravens' new scheme. Not only is he a precise route-runner with outstanding hands and ball skills, but he's also a sneaky athlete with above-average speed and burst. He can stretch the field on vertical routes or run away from defenders on shallow crosses and deep overs.
In Kubiak's system, Pitta's athleticism and explosiveness will allow him to be the primary target on a variety of bootleg and bootleg-throwback concepts designed to put the tight end on the move behind aggressive linebackers overreacting to run fakes in the backfield. This is one of the tactics Kubiak used to help Owen Daniels (who signed with the Ravens this offseason) become a two-time Pro Bowler in Houston, and it will quickly become one of the staples of Baltimore's passing game, with Pitta aligned as the H-back or "move" tight end in multiple-tight end formations.
Reviewing some of the Ravens' games over the past few seasons, I discovered the team occasionally included bootleg concepts in the game plan to get Pitta open down the field, as shown in the video clip above. Based on Kubiak's success with movement passes in Houston, I expect Baltimore to wear this out in 2014.
Bottom line: Pitta should be a big-play threat all season.
Despite his relatively advanced age (35), Smith remains one of the top deep-ball specialists in the NFL. The 5-foot-9, 195-pound veteran has 46 receptions of at least 40 yards in his career -- including 10 over the past three seasons, when he'd seemingly lost some of the speed and quickness that made him such a dynamo early on.
Part of Smith's success getting behind the defense can be attributed to his explosive first-step quickness and clever route-running tricks, as evidenced in the video clip to the right.
The veteran has a keen understanding of how to work against a defender's leverage with various stems and releases, and he possesses enough acceleration to separate when the ball is in the air. With Kubiak utilizing hard play-action fakes and misdirection bootlegs to lure safeties to the line of scrimmage, Smith's ability to win on deep routes should result in more explosive plays for the Ravens' offense.