By the end of the 2013 season, the Baltimore Ravens offense looked something like this:
The Ravens struggled to an 8-8 record and missed the playoffs for the first time since John Harbaugh became the head coach in 2008. Their offense which had finished 13th in offensive DVOA in 2012, fell to 30th under coordinator Jim Caldwell. Despite the offensive collapse, Caldwell still managed to secure the head coaching job in Detroit. After all Caldwell is known for his brilliant in-game strategy, like this:
In 2014, Caldwell’s replacement, former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, helped revive the Ravens moribund offense. Last season, Baltimore finished 10-6 and advanced to the divisional round before losing 35-31 to the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Kubiak lasted only one season in Baltimore before becoming the new head coach of the Broncos in January 2015. Now the Ravens will turn to their fourth offensive coordinator in four seasons, former Bears head coach Marc Trestman. The most important question facing the Ravens in 2015 is can Trestman replicate Kubiak’s success?
Let’s look at how and where the Ravens improved offensively from 2013 to 2014. The chart below compares the two offenses in some key areas.
Ravens Offense by DVOA
|Offensive DVOA (Rank)||Weighted Offensive DVOA (Rank)||Passing DVOA (Rank)||Rushing DVOA (Rank)|
|2013||-21.7% (30)||-24.2% (32)||-9.0% (24)||-27.2% (32)|
|2014||9.4% (9)||5.8% (8)||31.9% (6)||-6.0% (18)|
In DVOA terms, the Ravens went from an offense that was 21.7% below league average in 2013 to one that was 9.4% above league average in 2014. Considering offensive DVOA tends to be more stable than defensive, this is a remarkable improvement. Now the answer could be simple regression, a team that fell from 13th to 30th was bound to bounce back. But that explanation should not discount Baltimore’s personnel and schematic changes. They aggressively overhauled their offense (apart from quarterback Joe Flacco), and implemented Kubiak’s zone blocking running game.
Kubiak’s zone blocking running game, as Chris B. Brown of Grantland and Smart Football has written, emerged from his time spent with Mike Shanahan and legendary offensive line coach Alex Gibbs in Denver in the late 1990s. This collaboration helped propel Terrell Davis and a host of other largely anonymous running backs (Mike Anderson, Sammy Robinson, Rueben Droughns, and Olandis Gary—okay I made one of those names up) to thousand yards seasons. In Gibbs’ system, the most important play is called the outside zone. I’ll let Brown explain why it’s so effective:
“The outside zone is more about lateral movement. Each blocker first steps to the side rather than forward (and many coaches teach their linemen to take their first step backward, a technique referred to as “losing ground to gain ground”). The blockers then try to pin defenders to the inside — or if they can’t do that, drive them to the sideline. Sometimes on these plays, the running back runs around the edge on a traditional-looking sweep. More often, the defense is stretched to its limit and the runner hits a crease and then sprints straight toward the end zone. When executed correctly, it’s extremely taxing on the defense, as all of their instincts — aggressiveness to the ball carrier and fast pursuit — work against them, and linemen without great size or talent can open huge holes through excellent technique and discipline.”
The difficulty in implementing this scheme is that it requires extremely disciplined offensive linemen who will stick to their assignments. One missed block can blow the entire play.
For Kubiak’s system to succeed, Baltimore needed to improve its atrocious offensive line.
Ravens Offensive Line Play
|Adjusted Line Yards (Rank)||Adjusted Sack Rate (Rank)|
|2013||3.01 (32)||7.3% (16)|
|2014||4.25 (3)||4.5% (4)|
By adjusted line yards, a measurement from Football Outsiders that takes running back carries and adjusts them to credit the offensive line, the Ravens went from the worst offensive line in 2013 to the third best in 2014. They similarly did a better job protecting quarterback Joe Flacco, who was sacked only 19 times in 2014 compared to 48 times in 2013. Last offseason, the Ravens aggressively overhauled their personnel. Here are the starters from 2013-2014.
Ravens Offensive Line Starters
|Left Tackle||Eugene Monroe||Eugene Monroe|
|Left Guard||A.Q. Shipley||Kelechi Osemele|
|Center||Gino Gradkowski||Jeremy Zuttah|
|Right Guard||Marshal Yanda||Marshal Yanda|
|Right Tackle||Michael Oher||Ricky Wagner|
The Ravens resigned Monroe to a 5 year, 37.5 million dollar deal after acquiring him from the Jaguars for a pair of draft picks. Grantland’s Robert Mays recently rated Marshal Yanda as the best offensive lineman in the league in 2014. Osemele resumed his role at left guard following back surgery that limited him to only seven games in 2013. The Ravens made their biggest improvements by benching Gradkowski and letting Oher walk in free agency. According Football Outsiders Adjusted Line Yards metric, the Ravens ranked 32nd in the NFL when they ran behind the right guard in 2013, averaging on 2.13 yards per carry. In 2014 with Wagner in place of Oher that figure jumped to 1st as Ravens running backs averaged 5.07 yards per carry. There was a similar improvement along the interior of the line. In 2014, the Ravens averaged 4.11 yard per carry up the middle, good for 9th in the league, compared to a league worst 3.15 yards per carry 2013.
With an improved offensive line, the Ravens also upgraded at running back. Justin Forsett emerged as the replacement for Ray Rice, who was released in September 2014 following the emergence of an elevator video of Rice punching fiancé Janay Palmer in the face (Rice had already been suspended by the NFL). In six seasons prior to joining the Ravens, Forsett had appeared in 87 games but started only seven. Over the course of his limited playing time, Forsett had 347 carries for 1692 yards and 8 rushing touchdowns averaging 4.88 yards per carry. He also caught 115 passes for 850 yards and 1 touchdown. In 2014, Forsett took full advantage of his opportunity, rushing for 1266 yards in 235 attempts. His 5.4 yards per carry average was the best in the league. This was a marked improvement over the 2013 version of Ray Rice. Forsett’s 149 DYAR (a metric from Football Outsiders that compares a player’s performance to a replacement level player in the same situation and then translates it into yards) far outstripped Ray Rice’s anemic -169 DYAR from 2013. Rice had averaged only 3.1 yards per carry, better only than Trent Richardson, Bernard Pierce, and the corpse of Willis McGahee.
With an improved offensive line and running game, quarterback Joe Flacco improved under Kubiak as well. According to Jamison Hensley, the Baltimore Ravens reporter for ESPN, in 2013, Caldwell kept Flacco in the shotgun on 625 snaps, highest in the NFL (likely to compensate for the Ravens terrible running game). In 2014 with Kubiak and a more run focused attack, Flacco found himself in the gun for only 243 snaps, lowest among QBs who started at least 10 games. Just compare Flacco’s passing stats out of the shotgun from 2013 and 2014.
Joe Flacco Out of the Shotgun
|Completions/Attempts||Yards||Completion %||TD/INT||QB Rating|
In 2013, Flacco attempted 78 passes of twenty or more yards down the field. He completed 15 of them (19.2%). He threw one touchdown pass and eight interceptions. In 2014, he attempted only 55 passes and completed 17 (30.9%). This time he threw ten touchdown passes compared with only 2 picks. As a result of the change brought by Kubiak, Flacco finished with 27 touchdown passes, 3,986 passing yards and a 67.0 QBR, all career bests. He finished tenth in the NFL in QBR, just behind Phillip Rivers, but ahead of Eli Manning.
The 2014 wide receiver corps represented a significant upgrade over 2013. Torrey Smith generated 310 defense-adjusted yards above replacement good for 9th in the NFL. Smith alone outperformed the 2013 DYAR totals of himself (139), Marlon Brown (117), Jacoby Jones (30), and tight end Dennis Pitta (6). That’s not even counting contributions from Steve Smith (79), Kamar Aiken (106), and Owen Daniels (49).
Personnel improvements and a shift in offensive philosophy helped propel the Ravens back to the playoffs in 2014. With Gary Kubiak now in Denver and Marc Trestman pledging to stick to Kubiak’s system, can the Ravens maintain their offensive success? Their playoff hopes may depend on it.
 From Grantland and also can be found in Brown’s excellent, The Essential Smart Football. He recently released another book, The Art of Smart Football. Both are eminently readable volumes that explain football and its jargon in terms understandable to an interested reader.