It took only one game in 2008 to realize that new Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's playbook would not be the same as the "Two Yards and a Cloud of Jamal" offense run by former coach Brian Billick.
Against the Cincinnati Bengals in the home opener, Cameron unleashed a creative scheme, mixing unbalanced lines and trick plays with a power running game. Cameron's first game featured more tricks than Billick and his offensive assistants had called in 10 years.
That creative playbook, combined with the strong passing arm and cool presence of rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, helped the Ravens get within one win of the Super Bowl. The question now becomes, what do Cameron and Flacco do for an encore?
The biggest change to the playbook this year is quite simple: Flacco now has a year's experience under his belt. The experience of starting the whole season last year, plus the extended playoff run, on the road no less, cannot be overstated.
The kid has now seen what the NFL's best defensive coordinators will throw at him. Cameron can officially take the training wheels off and diversify this offense.
A year ago, the Ravens created most of their big plays off tricks. The team frequently ran from an unbalanced line with three tackles on one side and showed an almost limitless supply of gadgets: reverse passes, option plays, flea-flickers. The team even had its own version of the "wildcat" formation—the "Suggs package"—which featured two quarterbacks.
The goal in 2009 should be to create more big plays through conventional tactics and supplement that with the gimmickry.
Personnel-wise, the Ravens seem to be moving more in the direction of Cameron's offenses in San Diego. With Le'Ron McClain moving back to fullback and Lorenzo Neal gone, expect to see less of the jumbo, Jerome Bettis-style running game and more of a LaDainian Tomlinson running/receiving combo.
That would seem to favor second-year man Ray Rice's style, or even sixth-round pick Cedric Peerman, more than incumbent Willis McGahee, who's a between-the-tackles slasher.
But since McGahee has a year left on a big contract, he'll likely see most of the reps. Don't be surprised to see Rice have a much bigger role though. He was very impressive last season before a late-season injury took him out of the lineup for four weeks.
The Ravens are hoping Flacco can improve his intermediate throws over the middle, something he struggled with at times last season.
If that happens, the Ravens can add another dimension to their attack thanks to two very good receiving tight ends: Todd Heap and L.J. Smith. Of course, getting Heap and Smith to stay on the field for 16 games is a whole other problem given their injury histories.
Heap is coming off a miserable season in 2008, one in which he was injured frequently and did not develop much chemistry with Flacco. In Heap's defense, the Ravens had to keep him in to block an awful lot last season due to the need to max protect for Flacco. The team is hoping an improved offensive line can get Heap out into the pattern more.
Speaking of that offensive line, if it is as improved as the team thinks it is, it should help open up the playbook even more. Simply put, if Cameron does not have to max protect as much, the Ravens can send more receivers into the pattern, thereby opening up the passing game.
Cynics may have scratched their heads at General Manager Ozzie Newsome drafting Mississippi tackle Michael Oher over a wide receiver but practically, it was the smart play.
You can never have enough good linemen and in a division where you have to play James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley twice a year, you really can't have enough good tackles. Oher also fits the bill of the quintessential Ravens prospect: a guy with a lot of talent motivated by falling in the draft.
With the additions of Oher, along with center Matt Birk and the return of guard Marshal Yanda, the Ravens line looks solid. The Ravens missed Yanda's nastiness in the last two games against Pittsburgh. Just being able to keep Flacco vertical, he was sacked 32 times last year, will allow this offense to continue to improve.
Last season, the Ravens took the first step into remaking their image from "all defense/no offense" to a more balanced team. How Cameron and Flacco take the team to step two will be one of the main story lines for the club this year.
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