Ravens Missing a Staple of the West Coast System
The Ravens are 1-4, and the offense is hardly to blame for that. They rank 12th in the NFL in yards per game, 10th in points per game. They rank 13th in offensive DVOA, but they only rank 24th in passing efficiency. While the cumulative numbers suggest Joe Flacco is right on par with is career statistics, the passing game could be better.
With the season seemingly over, except for the most optimistic, it’s time to look at what we want to see in the future. What we want to see going forward. With a Joe Flacco extension in the works, you want to make sure the passing game is clicking, so there is no second guessing his next big contract.
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Now this is not a pile on Joe Flacco piece. He isn’t even the focus here. I won’t beat him down, nor praise him. It’s just that when the defense couldn’t possibly be any worse at keeping the opposition from lighting up the scoreboard, you need to have an answer on offense to keep up.
I was originally going to write this piece, focusing on the lack of attention paid to the tight ends in the offense, with Crockett Gillmore out. I thought more attention could be paid to the TEs with Marlon Brown and Kamar Aiken now anointed starters at wide out, and neither able to get open regularly enough for Joe Flacco. In fact, on Sunday, Flacco attempted eight passes, 28% of his aimed attempts, behind the line of scrimmage, or check downs. It wasn’t because of a pass rush. With Eugene Monroe back in the fold, Flacco stayed clean most of the day, only taking one hit from the Browns defense.
I thought there has to be something wrong with the tight ends. It has to be getting overlooked with the even worse play by the receivers. But I remembered back around the draft stating that we all need to temper expectations when it came to Maxx Williams. The Ravens like him so much that they moved up in the second round in order to grab him. But he is barely 21 years old and will need a year to grow into NFL shape. A year to take his licks from linebackers who play bigger and faster than those at the collegiate level. That notion of giving him time to grow still remains for me.
Baltimore also drafted tight end Nick Boyle in the fifth round. Boyle has been getting more targets and catches than Williams has. Surprising given his 5.06 40-time.
I was studying tape of these two men when something even more glaring stood out, and is of major concern for me. It has to do with the passing game as a whole, and needs to be addressed going forward. The Ravens are missing a major staple in the West Coast system. Proper utilization of the middle of the field. By middle of the field, I mean inside the numbers. It’s something we want to keep an eye on during the coming weeks as we want to see the young receivers get more efficient. This is one way to do that.
The Ravens target the areas outside the numbers too much. When you throw towards the sidelines, it’s like inviting and extra defender, the boundary, to end the play when the receiver comes in contact with it. It really limits the yards after catch. While Flacco can make the throw, those are tough ones because sometimes you have to throw it 15 or 20 yards to gain two or three.
One of the staples of Bill Walsh’s offenses was the dual crossing routes over the middle. A tight end on one side of the line would run a shallow cross, 3-5 yards down field, right in front of the QB. Easy pitch and catch should the QB look to him. A wide receiver on the opposite side would run a square in, or slant, some kind of crossing route, 8-10 yards down field. Far enough behind the middle linebacker that the tight end occupies, but in front of the deep safeties playing 12-15, maybe 20 yards off the line.
Here is a look from the Steelers game two weeks back where attacking the middle of the field could have paid huge dividends. It’s the first drive of the game and it’s 3rd and 10.
On this play, the Ravens line up in the gun with three WRs, a TE, and a RB alongside Flacco. It’s your most typical Shotgun formation, and the one the Ravens show most frequently.
Jump to where the Ravens are getting settled into their routes. Maxx Williams settles right in front of the linebacker, Spence. The first part of the Walsh staple is complete. Tight end in position. Smart here actually as Williams sits there instead of continuing his route, almost like a decoy. If he continues his route and Spence is zone coverage, or has a spy assignment, Spence passes the coverage off to Jones to his right, and can now engage Steve Smith if he comes into his zone. Spence can also drop back into coverage in that giant space of wide open green grass just begging for a receiver to enter it. By Williams sitting he takes two defenders out of the play. Spence, and Jones who is left out there without an assignment. His back is to Marlon Brown, so he’s playing zone, but with the action elsewhere.
Problem is, the second part of the Walsh staple is non-existent. Look at where the routes are going. Brown is pretty well covered running the hitch and Flacco would have to throw across his body. Smith runs an out then in, and is running his route the same depth as Williams. Looks like a collision if Flacco got this ball away. Yeah he’s coming back to the middle but far too late, and far too short of the sticks. Campanaro tries to stutter step with a stop and go, then streak down the sideline. But the safety has already cheated to that side. He knows the Ravens don’t use the middle of the field, and certainly isn’t worried about Marlon Brown beating Cockrell one on one on the other side. Flacco has nowhere to go and suffers the coverage sack.
Wonder why Jerry Rice was so good at taking an eight yard pass and turning into a sprint to the endzone? Michael Campanaro is hardly Jerry Rice, but at least can break off that route and leave Lawrence Timmons in the dust. If Campanaro had been streaking across the middle, this is a touchdown with a good throw.
There was one instance in the Cleveland game last week where we did see the double crossers that Bill Walsh loved. It is 2nd and 5. Again, out of the gun, three wide, a TE and a RB. This time the three wide are split to one side. This really was a thing of beauty, for being just and 11-yard gain.
Flacco uses a three step drop, and the ball comes out. Another feature of the west coast philosophy. It’s more about the timing of the route, in sync with the foot work of the quarterback, more than it is about the actual play itself. Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown clear out the defenders on their side, streaking deep. Karlos Dansby choses to pick Darren Waller crossing his way, and ignores Nick Boyle. Joe Haden is frozen knowing Dansby isn’t sticking with Waller. Boyle is wide open, and has room to run. He doesn’t have a sideline two steps away waiting to end the play because it’s the middle of the field. Had Dansby stuck with Boyle, Flacco had a split second to hit Waller before Haden closes that window, but would have also been good for a first down, since he takes his route to the sticks. Also good idea to run a play opposite of Joe Haden’s direction.
You have options when you use the middle of the field. You have room to rack up yards after catch when you use the middle of the field. 66% of the field is in between the numbers. In the Pittsburgh game, Joe Flacco attempted just eight passes of his 33 in between the numbers and past the line of scrimmage. About 25%. It should be the other way around. 25% of your throws should go to the outside of the numbers which makes up 33% of the field.
In the Browns game, it started off looking better. Flacco went in between the numbers eight times in the first half alone. The most efficient portion of that game for the passing attack. But in the second half, just twice did they look over the middle. 10 times on 35 passes total. About 28% on the day. Again. Not enough.
For giggles, I pulled up the tape from arguably Joe Flacco’s best game of 2014, his first year in the West Coast Offense. The matchup with the Buccaneers where he threw five TDs and the game was over before the second quarter. (I was also dying to watch a Ravens winning effort). He just so happened to throw 19 out of 28 attempts in between the numbers, including three of his TDs. About 68% of his passes thrown into 66% of the field. So 32% to the other 34% of it. That’s more like it. That’s how you spread it around and spread defenses out, so they don’t stack one portion of the field against you. The smallest portion at that.
It used to be that the Cover 2 defense, made famous by the Steelers of the 70’s, and revamped by former Steeler Tony Dungy in the 90’s (then called Tampa 2), was a West Coast buster. It also helps to have Hall of Fame laden teams like the 70s Steelers and late 90s, early 2000s Bucs to run those defenses. That cover 2 defense is a dying breed in the NFL these days, which is good news for the Ravens. The middle of the field is there. Take it.
Something to watch for as the season progresses. Watch the efficiency of the young receivers, and young tight ends that are so important in this offense. It will go up dramatically if they use the middle of the field more.
Mike was born on the Eastern Shore, raised in Finksburg, and currently resides in Parkville. In 2009, Mike graduated from the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland. Mike became a Baltimore City Fire Fighter in late 2010. Mike has appeared as a guest on Q1370, and FOX45. Now a Sr. Ravens Analyst for BSL, he can be reached at [email protected]