OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The best piece of news emanating from Baltimore’s training camp this year is that the Ravens know who they are on offense again. They know what they do best, and they know what they can count on, with an offensive identity that is rapidly forming in a way that never remotely happened for last year’s defending Super Bowl champions.
The Ravens in 2013 got off track, and uncharacteristically stayed there throughout the year, meandering to an 8-8 record and the first non-playoff season in John Harbaugh’s six seasons as head coach. But things have clicked so well and so early this year that there’s actually been an effort to temper expectations on the offensive side of the ball. And when was the last time that seemed necessary in Baltimore? Maybe never?
“I love this offense, no doubt about it,” seventh-year Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said on Monday, moments after Baltimore’s final joint workout with the visiting 49ers. “I think it’s going to be good football, and it’s going to be fun to watch all season long.”
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After watching the Ravens in their first preseason game -- a crisp 23-3 conquest of San Francisco last Thursday night -- and through two days of dual camp practices with the 49ers this week, we hold these truths to be self-evident in Baltimore, where I predict a bounce-back-to-the-playoffs season is in store:
• The hiring of ex-Texans head coach Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator, replacing the departed Jim Caldwell, has been a godsend for the Ravens. The fit between Kubiak and Flacco has been superb, and their rapport easily betters any working relationship Flacco had with past Ravens OCs Cam Cameron or Caldwell. Kubiak’s offense is ideal for the talent on hand in Baltimore, plays to Flacco’s strengths and the quarterback raves about it being simple to master, but organized and detailed in its approach, with success in the run game setting up the rest of the attack.
• The Ravens’ puzzling underachievement on the offensive line last season was the biggest reason for the offense ranking 29th in yards, because it had an obvious domino effect on both the underwhelming running game and Flacco’s performance as a passer under duress. But there’s great cause for optimism on the O-line, with ex-Buc Jeremy Zuttah representing a sizable upgrade over Gino Gradkowski, both Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda looking stout again at guard and left tackle Eugene Monroe re-signed and on hand from the start in 2014. The Ravens believe they’re sound again up front, and I’m inclined to agree.
• After his tumultuous and damaging offseason, running back Ray Rice looks lighter and explosive again, capable of breaking tackles and making people miss. But the Ravens also think fullback Kyle Juszczyk and rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro will be surprisingly important weapons in Kubiak’s offense, with tight ends Dennis Pitta, Owen Daniels and Crockett Gillmore heavily involved as well. And everyone who has watched him this summer says veteran receiver Steve Smith looks rejuvenated by his relocation to Baltimore after all those productive years in Carolina.
The Ravens’ offensive identity has traditionally started with physicality in the running game, and on that front, it would have been hard to imagine a better first step than the preseason-opening win over San Francisco. Baltimore averaged an embarrassing 3.1 yards per carry last season, but rolled to 237 rushing yards on 48 attempts against San Francisco, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Rice and the offensive line set the tone early, with gains of 6, 5 and 6 on his three runs, helping key a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown march that consumed almost five minutes.
The Ravens flashed the epitome of a balanced attack on that opening possession, with five runs, five passes and six different players touching the ball. Flacco was a cooly efficient 4-of-5 for 52 yards, with a 110.0 passer rating and completions of 14 yards to Pitta on a tight end screen, 17 yards to Juszczyk on a seam route, 12 yards to receiver Jacoby Jones and nine yards to Steve Smith. All in all, it was a near perfect start in the only series played by the Baltimore starting offense, especially since it also included some of the up-tempo, hurry-up approach Kubiak is working into the Ravens’ offensive DNA.
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“It’s called matriculating the ball down the field,” said Steve Smith, dropping into his best Hank Stram of NFL Films lore. “I feel like we’re putting the pieces of the puzzle together. They realized they were missing that offensive identity last year and they brought people in to fix it and re-emphasize it, along with the nucleus they already had.”
The key to the Ravens’ seamless start on offense has been how quickly Kubiak and Flacco have gotten on the same page. Flacco told me Kubiak’s offense takes so much of the guesswork off his shoulders and clearly lays out the coordinator’s vision of how to execute the offense. One Ravens’ observer compared Flacco’s role in the offense to being a pilot or doctor who operates off a checklist. As experienced as Flacco is, he now has that checklist to go by, and it makes the job very simple, very organized and removes much of the possibility that a player and coach will interpret a situation very differently.
“It’s a lot about the way Gary teaches the offense,” Flacco said. “He makes it black and white. He knows what he wants and he knows what he doesn’t want, and I’m a guy who likes to run the offense based on the way the coordinator set it up to be ran. So, yeah, it’s a nice fit. Because I trust myself to make the right decision. When it’s very black and white on what you’re supposed to do, it makes it very easy for me to go out there and do it. You’re going through your progressions and getting the ball to the guy who’s open and where the ball should be and I love that.
“Because when you go back and watch film, I’m going to be able to say this is why I went here, and he’s going to say, ‘Yeah you should be there, or why are you there? You should be right here with the ball.’ And I’ll be able to say, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ And that makes it easy for a quarterback.”
As it was in Houston, where he was the Texans’ head coach for eight years, earning a pair of AFC South division titles in 2011 and ‘12, Kubiak in Baltimore is building an offense predicated on some very familiar tenets: the ability to consistently gain rushing yardage with backs who utilize a one-cut running style and an offensive line that can dictate to the defense in terms of physicality; an effective screen game using tight ends and running backs and athletic guards; a strong focus on underneath and intermediate routes; and an emphasis on doing big damage with play-action passing set up by the running game, taking your shots downfield for chunk yardage. Add in the up-tempo element that Flacco and the Ravens are honing this summer, and Baltimore’s offense should be more versatile, unpredictable and reliable than recent editions.
“If we can get the run game going the way we did the other night, then this offense is going to be tough to stop,” Flacco said. “Running like that is going to set us up take a lot of shots downfield. I actually think there are a lot of shots built into this offense, and we have the players to do it.”
The Ravens see receiver Torrey Smith and Marlon Brown as their home-run threats in the passing game -- Flacco still throws one of the best deep balls in the game -- while Steve Smith, Jones, Pitta, Daniels and Juszczyk hopefully will work the short to intermediate routes to generate consistent production. Some within the organization predict Rice is primed and ready to gain 1,000 yards rushing and catch about 50 passes, even though he’ll miss two games due to his league suspension from a domestic violence incident. Fellow running back Bernard Pierce has looked sharp, and keep your eye on the rookie Taliaferro. He could be the true revelation, a 230-pound banger who excels at the one-cut and up-the-field running style that Kubiak and his mentor, ex-Denver and Washington head coach Mike Shanahan, have always favored. Against the 49ers, Taliaferro ran 13 times for a game-high 71 yards (5.5), signaling that the re-dedication to Baltimore’s running game might go three-deep in 2013.
The thinking is that Kubiak is committed to the running game, believes it’s the foundation of the offense’s success and won’t abandon it or fail to prioritize it in any given week the way the Ravens were forced to under Caldwell last season. Notoriously slow starting, Baltimore’s offense, according to observers, has never looked so good so early (in training camp).
“Our big focus offensively is to No. 1 run the ball,” said Kubiak, fired last December, with his two-time defending division champion Texans in the late stages of a stunning 2-14 disaster of a season. “We’re a physical football team, so we’ve got to run the ball. And No. 2 is we’ve got to cut down sacks, and that’s about protecting better, running better routes and ultimately it’s getting rid of the ball quicker. That’s been our focus and Joe’s really bought into what we teach.
“You talk about forming an identity on offense, and John [Harbaugh] does a great job of letting this team know what he wants it to look like. That foundation has been laid, now it’s about working toward that foundation and looking like that. The other night we wanted to run the ball and be committed to that, and I think that’s going to be very important in what we do.”
The Ravens of 2013 didn’t get old overnight, or see their talent evaporate in the Super Bowl after-glow. But on offense they lost sight of who they were, and what they did best, and this offseason was dedicated to re-establishing that identity. So far, when they check their look in the mirror, they love what they’re seeing.
“Gary has a good plan for this offense and I think we’ve all come in and bought into it, and reacted well to it,” Flacco said. “I think it’s already shown out here on the practice field, and we had a very good first preseason game. All the work we’ve been putting in so far has been showing up. When we got out there in a real live game, and had the whole team come together and play pretty well, it makes you excited about where we could be headed.”