Football is back and the Baltimore Ravens have a new offense to acclimatize to. New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has installed his version of the west coast offense passing game combined with the zone-blocking scheme. While we only saw the Ravens starters for one series in their opening preseason game last week, we did get a glimpse of what is to come from the new system.
The foundation of Kubiak’s offense is the zone running game. Every team in the NFL will mix between power and zone running schemes, but Kubiak comes from the Mike Shanahan coaching tree that uses almost exclusively zone blocking.
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This is the bread and butter play in the Kubiak offense. It’s a stretch run to the left. Left tackle Eugene Monroe and left guard Kelechi Osemele will work together on a combination block on the defensive end. Meanwhile, center Jeremy Zuttah and right guard Marshal Yanda will work a similar combination block on the nose tackle.
The combination blocks give the Ravens offensive line all the leverage, enabling them to drive the defensive line on the front side of the run off the line of scrimmage. On the backside of the play, right tackle Ricky Wagner helps cut off the backside edge defender before working to the second level.
Once the blocks are secure, both guards are free to work up to the second level and take on the linebackers. Wagner allows receiver Steve Smith to take on the block of the backside edge defender and moves onto the safety. Ray Rice does an excellent job staying disciplined and not cutting back too early. He presses the run to the outside, drawing in the linebackers to the front side of the run. All of this works beautifully together to open a big cutback lane for Rice and an easy six-yard pick up.
This play is something you should get used to seeing as a Ravens fan. It will be the play you see most often. The keys to success on these zone stretch runs are the running back staying disciplined and the lineman on the front side of the play working their combination blocks and getting to the second level. If the offensive line can mesh together and buy into the scheme quickly, then this scheme becomes a huge threat. The offense can build off a successful run game into a potent play-action game.
On this play, the Ravens fake a zone run to the right, while leaking out fullback Kyle Juszczyk up the seam.
The threat of the run, combined with a good fake draws in the linebackers of the defense.
Juszczyk runs right past his defender, who was sold by the play-action fake.
Joe Flacco has an easy read and makes an excellent throw that takes Juszczyk away from the incoming safety.
These play-action passes become incredibly effective with a successful run game. Having studied the Washington Redskins offense under Mike Shanahan for the past four years, this zone running game combined with the play-action played a huge role in helping Robert Griffin III have one of the best seasons we’ve seen from a rookie quarterback. It generally provides quick, easy reads for the quarterback and plenty of open space over the middle as linebackers struggled to deal with the run threat. It also slows down the opposing pass rushers, as they take an extra second to decipher the play.
But one key to the play-action game working well is selling the fake. I noticed back up guard Ryan Jensen failed to sell a play-action fake and Tyrod Taylor took a sack for it.
Jensen’s first move is to take a backwards step, as if he is dropping into pass protection. Every other lineman sells the run fake, but any defender reading Jensen can quickly recognize the fake. A few defenders take advantage of the fake and Taylor ends up taking a sack as a result.
The other concept that Kubiak likes to lean on heavily is screens. Against San Francisco, he displayed his tight end screen, again off play-action.
The Ravens fake a run to the right. Tight end Dennis Pitta is assigned with making an initial block on the edge defender, before working out into the flat. The two outside receivers will run clearing routes, to clear the space underneath for Pitta to run into.
Like the play above, the linebackers are drawn in by the run fake. Pitta sets himself to cut off the edge defender from the backside of the run.
Pitta blocks the defender wide, making sure to give Flacco enough time in the pocket.
Pitta then peals off the block and works into the flat.
Pitta has an easy first down, and with the help of a block from his receiver, picks up 14 yards.
Screens like these feature heavily in Kubiak’s offense. The threat of the run game draws huge focus from the defense, making it easy to leak out a tight end or fullback out of the backfield. Offensive linemen in this scheme tend to be lighter and more agile, making them more adept at getting out to the flat and blocking on the run for screen plays.
So while we only saw one series of the Ravens starters with fairly vanilla plays, there was plenty to be taken away from the preseason opener. Kubiak’s offense will live and die by the run. That’s what defenses will be forced to focus on defending first and foremost, which should open up the play-action and screen game. What we didn’t see is how Kubiak can use Torrey Smith in the play-action game to stretch the field and help open up the run game; or how Kubiak can run the same concept from multiple formations and personnel to keep the defense off balance. We’ll see as preseason goes on if Kubiak elects to reveal any more of his offense before week one.