To say the 2013 season was not kind to the Baltimore Ravens would be a gross understatement; it was horrible. For the first time in Head Coach John Harbaugh’s six years tenure, the team did not have a winning record and was not a “playoff contender.”
“Ravens’ officials were not happy with the 8-8 finish and their displeasure was apparent during their annual ‘Season Review’ press conference” – Ken JacksonTeam Owner Stephen Bisciotti, General Manager Ozzie Newsome and other high ranking Ravens’ officials were not happy with the 8-8 finish and their displeasure was apparent during their annual “Season Review” press conference. During the media event, Newsome, Harbaugh and others acknowledged the team’s failures and identified several areas of concern. Most of the weaknesses identified centered on the Offense; a unit that managed to “squeak out” several very close wins but also went into hibernation during a number of “blowout” losses. Offensively, the Ravens ranked in the bottom half of most statistical categories: Total yards: 309.0 (29th) Rushing: 81.1 (29th) Passing: 227.9 (19th) Scoring: 20.8 (25th) Third down: 37.6 percent (17th) Red zone: 48.7 percent (24th) Note: Statistics are from article by Jamison Hensley on ESPN.com. Unlike last year when the Ravens began their Super Bowl title defense in Denver, the team will kick off their 2014 campaign against the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. As they prepare for this week’s training camp, Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh have high hopes that the coaching changes and player personnel moves they made during the off season will be enough to start the team on the road to recovery. However, they both know that there is still a lot of work to be done if the team is to be successful and return to the playoffs this year. One of the most controversial decisions Newsome and Harbaugh made was retaining Offensive Line Coach Juan Castillo. Castillo was the Run Game Coordinator as well as the Offensive Line Coach for much of 2013. Many Ravens fans and some of those in the media blame Castillo for the collapse of the running game and the disintegration of the Offensive line by implementing a zone blocking scheme for which the Ravens linemen did not seem prepared. The Ravens “doubled down” on zone blocking and adopted a “West Coast” oriented offensive scheme for the new season. Their hiring of Gary Kubiak, former Head Coach of the Houston Texans, to rebuild their crumbling Offense punctuated that decision. Presumably, the hiring of Kubiak put all offensive options on the table including scheme, personnel utilization, offensive line, back field, receiving corps and Quarterback. Kubiak was asked to fix a badly broken, tissue like Offensive line and make it functional again. He was asked to resuscitate a limp, lifeless running game and return it to health. He was also asked to eliminate the complacency, indifference and inefficiency that had plagued the beleaguered but talented Ravens receiving corps, and he was asked to have it all done before the regular season begins. So far, Kubiak has done a nice job. He and Quarterbacks Coach Rick Dennison have worked with Joe Flacco to improve the Quarterback’s footwork, increase his mobility and quicken his release. Kubiak has worked with Offensive Line Coach Juan Castillo to teach the upgraded Offensive line his version of both inside and outside zone blocking. Kubiak and Castillo have also worked to improve their Offensive Linemen’s technique and footwork. Finally, Running Backs Coach Thomas Hammock, under the guidance of Coach Kubiak, has worked with Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce and the other Ravens’ Running Backs to instill the “one cut, downhill” running philosophy that has proven to be most effective with inside zone blocking concepts. However, important issues remain. During the 2013 season, opposing teams quickly found that the Ravens were vulnerable to stunts that allowed the Defensive End to attack the “A” Gap and to “A” Gap blitzes, especially from the offensive right side. This created penetration on running plays that resulted in tackles for loss and backs being chased down by perusing Linemen or Linebackers. Second year player Gino Gradkowski struggled throughout most of his first year at Center. Normally Right Guard Marshal Yanda would help but the Ravens also had a weakness at Right Tackle often requiring Yanda to help Michael Oher contain the inside rush. The “A” Gap issue also raised its “ugly head” in the passing game. The same kind of pressure that affected running plays eroded Flacco’s confidence in the integrity of his pocket and disrupted his timing. The pressure degraded Flacco’s ability to effectively step into his throws. It also altered the path Flacco normally used to “climb the pocket” and escape pressure. That coupled with the Offensive line’s inability to seal the edge, especially on Oher’s side of the line, spelled disaster for Flacco and the passing game. While it is possible that Rick Wagner will be the ultimate solution to the problem, at this point, the Ravens must consider it an open issue. Pass protection is another area of concern. Ravens Running Backs have not proven to be terribly proficient at pass protection. Undersized Ray Rice has worked hard on improving his technique but still has a lot of room for improvement. Bernard Pierce has done a decent job over the years and the word out of OTAs is that rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro has performed well at a pass protector; however, the issue remains open until John Harbaugh and company sees the Running Backs perform well under fire. The final open issue involves coaching and coaching philosophy. During the latter part of Cam Cameron’s tenure as Offensive Coordinator, there seemed to be a growing reluctance to include traditional ball control plays in the offensive game plan. The use of screens (other than “bubble screens”), draws from under Center, traps, toss, swing routes, hooks and comeback routes seemed to be taboo. Often, Joe Flacco was asked to get first downs by throwing a 12 yards shallow crosses on a third down and four rather than using a higher percentage play like a screen, toss or flat route. Usually the play Cameron or Caldwell called resulted in an incompletion or sack and a Ravens’ punt. If Gary Kubiak’s work with the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans is any indication, many of these issues might finally be resolved or headed for resolution. The reported progress exhibited by the Raven’s Offense during OTAs is also encouraging. All-in-all, the Baltimore Ravens seem to be headed in the right direction. There appears to be a great deal of enthusiasm for the new offensive system and players seem to be buying into the program. If the players do buy in, the Ravens should be on their way to another playoff run. Maybe then, the Offense will finally match the drive, intensity, proficiency and success of their highly respected counterpart; the Defense.