What effect will the hiring of Gary Kubiak and other assistants have on the Ravens' 2014 season?
The Baltimore Ravens made four key additions to their coaching staff in the past few days. They named former Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak offensive coordinator to replace Jim Caldwell, who left to be the Detroit Lions head coach.
They also brought in Brian Pariani to coach tight ends, a job he held in Houston under Kubiak, and promoted Steve Spagnuolo from senior defensive assistant to defensive backs and assistant head coach. Rick Dennison also joined the staff, coming from Houston to be Baltimore's new quarterbacks coach.
Each man will put his own fingerprints on the Ravens in 2014, some more drastically than others. Let's take a look at each hire and what he could bring to the team this season.
OC Gary Kubiak
Obviously, the hiring of Kubiak is the highest-impact addition the Ravens have made to their coaching staff this offseason. Kubiak will be tasked with turning around an offense that ranked just 29th in yards and 25th in points per game in 2013.
This hiring particularly screams to the attention the Ravens want to pay to their run game going forward. The Ravens ranked 30th in rushing yards for the season and a league-worst 3.1 yards per rush, both uncharacteristic failings for the team.
Kubiak has made his career on building a strong rushing offense, first while the Denver Broncos offensive coordinator under then-head coach Mike Shanahan and later with the Texans. During Kubiak's tenure, the Texans had a top-10 offense four times and a top-10 run game three times.
He uses outside-zone run blocking exclusively and his passing game is very play action-heavy, with his quarterbacks throwing bootleg passes on a regular basis. Despite worries that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco isn't mobile enough for this type of passing game, Kubiak's offensive system is a good fit for this team.
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Think about Kubiak's time in Houston, particularly since Matt Schaub took over as starting quarterback in 2007: Schaub was a game manager who lacked many receiving weapons, save for Andre Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels. He also threw many passes to his running backs—first Steve Slaton and then Arian Foster.
That seems like a pretty similar setup to what Flacco has dealt with in his time in Baltimore. Derrick Mason and then Torrey Smith have been Flacco's big-play receivers, like Johnson has been for Schaub. While Flacco did have Anquan Boldin to pair with them for a few years, beyond those two receivers he hasn't had much help.
At tight end, he first had Todd Heap as his so-called security blanket and then Dennis Pitta. He also has much experience throwing passes to running back Ray Rice, who had over 700 receiving yards in two of his six seasons with the team. It looks like Kubiak's offensive system will be a good fit with the players currently in place in Baltimore.
The question, of course, is Flacco and the play action. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), just 13.3 percent of Flacco's passes in 2013 were out of the play action, compared to 17 percent for Schaub.
However, Flacco has thrown more play-action passes in the past—as has Schaub. In 2012, for example, 21.5 percent of Flacco's throws were out of the play action, while 25.7 percent of Schaub's were. The problem, however, is Flacco's accuracy when throwing play-action passes.
In 2012, Flacco's completion percentage on play action was just 55.1 (Schaub's was 65.4 percent). Though it improved to 59.3 percent in 2013, putting him in the middle of the quarterback pack, he threw significantly fewer play-action passes than the previous season. Flacco will be asked to execute far more play-action passes in 2014 than in 2013, and completing under 60 percent of them is simply not acceptable.
In the run game, Kubiak's zone blocking isn't too much different than what the team attempted to do in 2013 under Juan Castillo. Castillo remains, coaching the offensive line, but it's likely the blocking scheme will be tweaked to Kubiak's liking. The offensive line was also the league's worst run-blocking unit according to Football Outsiders, which could present some challenges for Kubiak in the coming months.
To turn things around, Kubiak and his staff will need to get the line performing better. That will be more important to the team's chances to have a productive offense, even more so than Rice being fully healthy or Flacco having additional receiving weapons to throw to. But if the line can improve, then Kubiak's system seems like it will translate well to the Ravens.
QB Coach Rick Dennison
Rick Dennison was Kubiak's offensive coordinator in Houston and comes to the Ravens to be the quarterbacks coach. His work with Joe Flacco will be integral to the team's offensive success in 2014, because of the aforementioned reliance on play-action passing from the bootleg, Flacco's Achilles' heel.
He also needs to help Flacco get to the next level as a quarterback. For most of his starting career, Flacco has been on a plateau. He's generally good for 3,600 to 3,800 yards, 20 or 22 touchdowns and 10 to 12 interceptions. The only outlier has been his 2013 season, in which he had career highs in passing yardage, at 3,912, and unfortunately in interceptions, with 22, while he threw just 19 touchdowns.
|QB/Year||% PA||Att.||Comp.||Yds.||Comp.%||TDs||INTs||Non-PA Comp.%|
via Pro Football Focus (subscription required)
Having no run game and a bad offensive line resulted in Flacco passing more, but it also caused him to force the football and make more mistakes. Hopefully, the run game-centric offensive coaching staff will allow Flacco to throw less and make better decisions when he does pass the ball.
Ultimately, Dennison's value to the Ravens is his familiarity with Kubiak and his ability to help the transition to the new system. He won't just be working with Flacco—he'll have a hand in offensive line and running backs coaching in order to get all areas of the offense seamlessly integrated into one another.
TE Coach Brian Pariani
Like Dennison, Pariani also comes to Baltimore after working under Kubiak in Houston, where he was tight ends coach from 2006 until 2013. He worked with the likes of Owen Daniels, Joel Dreessen and Garrett Graham in that span.
As discussed above, the Texans offense with Kubiak as head coach heavily involved passes to tight ends. That means big things for Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta, granted the team can either hammer out a deal with the soon-to-be free agent or give him the franchise tag.
Pitta missed most of the 2013 season with a dislocated and fractured hip, which was a huge blow to Baltimore's offense. Pitta was poised to be the centerpiece of the Ravens offense, especially after the team opted to trade away receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers. Without him on the field, the entire team suffered, which also helps to explain why Flacco uncharacteristically struggled.
The Houston Chronicle's John McClain spoke with Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com about the multiple former Texans coaches the Ravens have hired on offense, and he was emphatic in the importance of tight ends in this system. McClain said:
You all will have at least three good tight ends. If Pitta is smart, he should re-sign with the Ravens because Kubiak loves to throw to tight ends. The tight ends are going to catch a lot of passes and get the ball in the red zone a lot. In 2012, Kubiak ran more two-tight end formations than any team in the league.
However, the Ravens only technically have one good tight end, which is Pitta. Ed Dickson caught only 25 of the 43 passes thrown his way in 2013 for a mere 273 yards and one touchdown. He is also an unrestricted free agent. Dallas Clark, who had 31 receptions for 343 yards and three scores, was signed to a one-year deal, so he will hit the free-agent market this year as well.
The hiring of all of these Texans offensive coaches means that one of Dickson and Clark could stay with the team by necessity. It also could result in two of the Ravens' younger tight ends, like Matt Furstenburg or Nate Overbay, developing rapidly enough in the new system to get significant playing time in 2014. But it's also likely the Ravens take a close look at the tight end position in the draft to boost their depth at the very least.
Either way, the Ravens' 2013 plan of making Pitta their biggest passing-game weapon could be finally realized in 2014. Pitta just has to avoid another injury and, of course, the Ravens need to keep him on the roster. The hiring of Kubiak and Pariani seems to indicate great things are ahead for Pitta if he sticks around.
DB/Assistant Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo
In 2013, the Ravens brought on Steve Spagnuolo to be the team's senior defensive assistant. In 2014, he will be the team's defensive backs coach, replacing Teryl Austin, who joined Jim Caldwell in Detroit. He is also the team's assistant head coach.
Spagnuolo coached the secondary for the Philadelphia Eagles when Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was on the staff. He's also been defensive coordinator for the New York Giants and New Orleans Saints as well as the head coach for the St. Louis Rams. He brings not only his talents working with defensive backs to the table but also his extensive experience, which makes him perfect to be Harbaugh's right-hand man for 2014.
The Ravens allowed a respectable 3,938 receiving yards to their opponents in 2013. They had 16 interceptions and their cornerbacks and safeties combined to give up 20 passing touchdowns on the season. It wasn't a great year, but it wasn't terrible, either.
But the most important quality Spagnuolo will bring to the defensive backs job is his ability to command respect from his players. Speaking on the hire, Harbaugh said, per Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun, "Our players respect him, and a number of our veteran defensive backs recently said to me that they wanted Steve to coach them." It's why his job title now also includes that of assistant head coach.
A great coach can bring the best out of his players. A cornerback who was merely average can improve his game with the right coach motivating him. Clearly, Harbaugh thinks Spagnuolo's personality and background make him the perfect candidate to return the Ravens' passing defense to its former glory.