To say the Baltimore Ravens offense has been underwhelming this season would be kind. They’ve been abysmal. One positive takeaway has been the willingness of offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell to try new things. That experimentation has been drastic in recent weeks, especially in last week’s victory.
We’ve seen the offensive philosophy evolve over the course of the season, as it has become clear that the ground game isn’t getting back on track any time soon.
The first shift to occur was the transition to a spread offense that accommodated the depth at the wide receiver position.
In recent weeks, Joe Flacco has operated almost exclusively out of the shotgun while throwing in a lot of no-huddle to increase the pace and keep defenses guessing. Additionally, Baltimore has gotten more receivers on the field at the same time.
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Part of the reason for that change was the improved health of the receiving corps, but the major impetus for the shift was the inability to run the football.
In an effort to jump-start the ground game while sticking with the spread offense, Jim Caldwell has implemented the pistol formation in recent weeks.
The pistol gives the offensive line more time to make their blocks, and it gives the running back different angles on the handoff, as opposed to the shotgun where the back is lined up to one side of the quarterback and can only run in one direction.
On this successful running play against the Cincinnati Bengals (successful for Baltimore this year means five yards in the right direction), there are three wide receivers on the field. The Bengals counter by taking one man out of the box, leaving only six defenders matched up against seven Ravens.
Both of the guards handle their blocks on defensive linemen (green), which allows center Gino Gradkowski and fullback Vonta Leach to get to the second level. The pistol lets Ray Rice (yellow) get a full head of steam hitting the hole, but it also allows Leach to line up like a Strong-I fullback.
In addition to personnel groupings and formations, Week 10 saw the Ravens use some trickery in an effort to surprise the Bengals defense and make some big plays. It was reminiscent of what the Pittsburgh Steelers did on their first couple of drives against Baltimore in Week 7 with their backs against the wall.
On the second drive of the game, Caldwell called for a flea flicker, which resulted in a huge gain and got the Ravens in the red zone.
The handoff to Ray Rice completely fooled safety George Iloka, who crashed down towards the line of scrimmage to make a tackle. As Rice lateraled back to Flacco (blue), Jacoby Jones had single coverage with no safety help, and he blew by his defender and got open downfield.
If Joe Flacco’s throw were on the mark, it would have been a walk-in touchdown for Jones.
Instead, Flacco underthrows the deep ball, allowing Reggie Nelson to get back in the play. Nelson commits a pass interference penalty, but in this scenario it’s a good play for Cincinnati since he prevents a touchdown.
The unusual play-calling didn’t stop with the flea flicker. On that red-zone trip, Haloti Ngata saw his first snaps of the year on the offensive side of the football.
A few other teams use defensive linemen as blockers in short-yardage situations (like the Bengals and Domata Peko), and Ngata gives true meaning to the name “jumbo formation.”
Another Raven that made his debut in the game was backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor. He only saw one snap, but he made the most of it and picked up 18 yards on an end around.
The key to the play was two excellent blocks made by Ray Rice and Ed Dickson, but Taylor’s elite speed was on display as he got outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict and found running room along the sideline.
According to Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com, the coaching staff has been non-committal about whether he’ll see more snaps, but he would add another dimension to the offense.
One drawback would be the risk of injury since he’s the only backup quarterback on the roster, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see him get a few snaps in upcoming games.
While the trick plays only came out last week in a must-win game against the Bengals, the offensive creativity has been simmering all season. It has yet to result in an increased output, but it’s a good sign that the coaching staff isn’t willing to stick to the same old strategy.
That innovation and eagerness to tinker with the offense wasn’t a trait that previous offensive coordinator Cam Cameron had, but it’s already one of Caldwell’s biggest strengths.
Furthermore, there is still room to add more wrinkles to the offense.
For example, something we’ve yet to see this year is both Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce on the field at the same time. They could both line up in the backfield, but Rice is such a good receiver that he could be split out wide for favorable matchups against slower linebackers.
The offense needs to get much better—there’s no denying that. But it needs to come with execution on the field. At any rate, you can’t blame Jim Caldwell for not trying to get his unit going.