An introduction to the Gary Kubiak offense

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.

(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)

zone run 1a

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.

zone run 1b

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.

zone run 1c

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.

PA pass 1a

On this play, the Ravens fake a zone run to the right, while leaking out fullback Kyle Juszczyk up the seam.

PA pass 1b

The threat of the run, combined with a good fake draws in the linebackers of the defense.

PA pass 1c

Juszczyk runs right past his defender, who was sold by the play-action fake.

PA pass 1d

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.

bad PA fake

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.

TE screen 1a

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.

TE screen 1b

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.

TE screen 1c

Pitta blocks the defender wide, making sure to give Flacco enough time in the pocket.

TE screen 1d

Pitta then peals off the block and works into the flat.

TE screen 1e

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.

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Defense Doesn’t Win Championships

130221161925-manny-machado-single-image-cutIt wasn’t long ago that Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh brought down the hard truth on the Tigers and the Athletics: having an ace pitcher doesn’t improve a team’s chances of winning in the postseason. That’s good for the Orioles, then! What if something the Orioles did have and are good at translates to postseason success? Striking out probably doesn’t help in October, and neither does everyone going down with injuries.1 The Orioles do have something on their side though, and that’s a very good infield defense.

Discuss the Orioles’ postseason needs on the BSL Forums.

The logic behind the possibility of an infield defense contributing to postseason success is this: the best pitchers induce weak contact and strikeouts, but good pitchers can get the ball on the ground. Having a superb set of infielders around a good pitcher should therefore be a boon to a team that might have to rely on a handful of average-to-good pitchers during the postseason. It should be a help to the great pitchers who get a lot of weak groundouts. In short, a good defense gets you to 27 outs without giving many (or any) away.

We can extend that to the outfield as well. Great outfield defenses are full of fast, rangey players that don’t miss should-be outs and often turn low-percentage plays into outs. Even average pitchers give up fly balls, so a good outfield defense should take away some extra base hits, or turn singles into outs.

If you’ve read the title of this article,2 you already know that this isn’t the case. To prove it, I measured the difference between each postseason team from 2009-2013′s postseason winning percentage and their regular season winning percentage, and treated that as an independent variable that would be affected by infield and outfield defense. Defensive ability was judged by adding up each team’s Def scores on FanGraphs, a measure of the number of runs above or below average a team is at each defensive position. I excluded pitchers because, come on, nobody has ever said, “Thank goodness we have so many Gold Glove pitchers on our team. We’d be lost without them!”

The p-value for infield defense as a variable that helps to determine improved postseason winning performance is 0.53, which is nowhere near statistically significant when working with a 95% confidence interval. The p-value for outfield defense was 0.91, which, again, was nowhere near statistically significant. But no team would sniff the World Series, much less the postseason, with nine of sumo wrestlers manning the field, so what gives?

I’ll echo and expand on what Lindbergh said in his Grantland article: every team in the postseason is good – teams don’t get that far without having a good pitching staff, a good offense, and a good defense. The compressed level of quality between teams means that every night, a good defense has to lose. That defense isn’t in itself a deciding factor in what makes teams great in the postseason doesn’t mean defense isn’t valuable. It just doesn’t become an unusually more valuable part of the game of baseball in short series.

What is interesting is the makeup of playoff teams’ defensive numbers. Since 2009, and probably long before that, every team’s first basemen have been worth some negative number of runs below average. Not only does infield defense mean next to nothing in terms of helping a team win in the playoffs, it’s entirely unheard of for any playoff team to have an above-average defender at first base. This is presumably because first base is the go-to position for terrific power batters who are generally more massive and less agile than anyone else on the team, save for maybe the catcher. It’s the one position that every single team – successful or not – is willing to give up on defensively in favor of the best hitter they can find.

Most postseason teams from the last five years seemed to fall into one of two groups, in terms of infield defense: those with it, and those without it. Those with a good cumulative infield were often 30 and 40 runs above average in infield defense, while those without it were very near average.

In the outfield, most teams were below average on defense. My take is that teams are willing to sacrifice the potential stopping of a run for the potential scoring of one, and put outfielders like Nelson Cruz (multiple postseason appearances with the Rangers) in one of the corners. It’s been said that stopping a run is less expensive than scoring one, but no team can win a game 0-0.

Lindbergh did point out that the best indicator of a team’s postseason performance is their regular season performance. While anyone can win in a small sample size, the postseason is also a small sample size of series. Over a very long time frame, the best teams win more often than not.

The best thing the Orioles can do to set themselves up for a postseason run is continue being one of the best teams in baseball.


1. Get well soon, Manny!

2. You’ve probably read the title of this article.

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Joint practices taking the NFL by storm

The Ravens and 49ers are wrapped up their joint practice yesterday following their meeting in Thursday night’s preseason opener. For the Ravens, it the first time they have held joint practices, unless you count the occasional scrimmage they used to hold years ago with the Redskins just down road. More and more teams are lining these up as 13 teams have a joint practice scheduled, and three (Patriots, Falcons, Texans) have two joint practices scheduled.

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During their practice with San Francisco, the Ravens suffered some significant injuries. Most significant being DE Kapron Lewis-Moore ruled out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. He’s the second defensive lineman to be ruled out for the season (Brent Urban, ACL). Asa Jackson needed to be helped off the field with an ankle injury, and his status for Saturday’s game in Dallas is in question. The injury is said to be “minor” by Coach John Harbaugh. Dennis Pitta was also held out of Sunday’s practice as a precautionary measure with an ankle “tweak”.

Injuries like this raise the question, are these joint practices to blame? The short answer is no .

Injuries happen any time. Brent Urban’s injury wasn’t during a joint practice. Dennis Pitta’s broken hip a year ago wasn’t during a joint practice. You can step wrong and break an ankle from walking the dog. Despite the extra adrenaline a player might get by getting to try to beat an opponent rather than a teammate in drills, the two teams only did full contact, tackle to the ground on goal line drills. Those drills didn’t involve the first teamers either.

If these practices put players in more danger than any other practice situation, then why is there an increase in teams agreeing to participate in them? This is a day in age where player safety is paramount to everything thing else (Well, almo$t everything el$e).Furthermore, why would one of the most respected head coaches, Bill Belichick, with one of the most valuable players in the game, Tom Brady, sign up for not one, but two joint practices?

Here’s what Terrell Suggs had to say about the practices:

“I like it. I think it actually speeds up the process. You get four games to get ready for the opener, and a lot of those games you don’t play that much, probably but one game. But I think it’s good. I think it’s really good. And, like I said before, to go up against a team of the caliber of the 49ers with their success and the guys they’ve got, it kind of speeds up our process to get ready for our opener.”

From David Steele of the Sporting News, here’s what Bill Belichick had to say:

“We may get a handful of red-area plays in the preseason games. Don’t know, we might not. But we know we’re going to get probably over 25 today. Same thing on third down—I don’t know how many third downs some of our guys who are going to have a lot of playing time during the year are going to get in preseason, but by the end of the week we’ll probably have 30 third down situations here. “

“You just can’t get the reps in preseason games like you can get out here on the practice fields.’’

It speeds up the process to get ready for the opener. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Performing your absolute best when it matters?

Now you have Bill Belichick, who aside from being one of the great head coaches, is also one of the most influential when it comes to rules and the direction of the league, saying that joint practices are better than preseason games. Combine that with the notion that the league wants to one day move to an 18 game schedule, trash two of the four current preseason games, is Belichick the nudge that will get the ball rolling in that direction? Substitute two joint practice sessions for two games?

Of course the major issue in all of this is money. Are owners willing to give up the gate and concession sales for a preseason game? It’s essentially 10% of their game day earnings for the season.

The Ravens are working out a deal to return the favor to San Francisco, and head out to the Bay Area in the summer or 2015.

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