If the Baltimore Ravens are going to rebound from a subpar 2013 season, it's going to start with the offense making significant improvements.
Baltimore ranked 29th in total offense and 30th in rushing offense last year while also allowing the fourth-most sacks (48) of any team.
Significant improvements in several areas have to be made for this offense to be something Baltimore can count on this coming season. In seven of the Ravens' eight losses last year, the offense scored 20 or fewer points. In four of those losses, Baltimore scored six or fewer points in the first half of games, allowing their opponents to take control of games going into halftime.
Here's a look at what the Ravens will need to do to create an optimal offense in 2014.
Create a Balanced Offense
In order to fix their offense, the Ravens hired former Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak as their new offensive coordinator. Baltimore wants to contend for championships, and Kubiak has overseen some elite offenses during his coaching career.
Viewed as an offensive guru, Kubiak won his first Super Bowl as the quarterbacks coach for the San Francisco 49ers in 1994. He joined the Denver Broncos in 1995 as their offensive coordinator, where he helped them win back-to-back Super Bowl titles.
Kubiak would become head coach of the Texans in 2006 and lead the franchise to its first division crown, playoff berth and playoff win in 2011. Kubiak followed that up with a 12-4 campaign in 2012 and another playoff win in the Wild Card round.
He did all of this with an offense that routinely ranked among the NFL's best, and it was built on a strong running game. Houston set a franchise-record 153.0 rushing yards per game in 2011, which also ranked second in the NFL. His offenses also got it done through the air.
Between 2009-2012, Houston's passing offense ranked seventh, seventh, 10th and 11th respectively.
That kind of balance is what the Ravens need to achieve this year. They've got the personnel to do so.
Fix the Running Game
On the ground, they've got Ray Rice, who was plagued with a hip injury and weight issues last year. That led to him rushing for a mere 660 yards and scored just four touchdowns in 15 games.
Prior to last year, Rice rushed for over 1,100 yards in each of the previous four seasons while scoring a combined 39 touchdowns.
When healthy, Rice is one of the best backs in the game, and backup Bernard Pierce is no slouch either. As a rookie in 2012, Pierce gained 532 yards on just 108 attempts (4.9 yards per carry). A shoulder injury and poor offensive line play helped limit him to just 436 yards on 152 carries (2.9 ypc) last year.
If those two are healthy and get better blocking from their O-line, they'll be a dangerous 1-2 punch this year.
Improve the Passing Attack
As for the passing game, Joe Flacco is coming off a season to forget. He completed just 59 percent of his passes and threw just 19 touchdowns, both of which were the second-lowest marks of his six-year NFL career.
He also threw a career-high 22 interceptions. Not all of this can be solely blamed on Flacco. Again, poor offensive line play made it hard for Flacco to succeed.
Making matters worse was losing Pro Bowl tight end Dennis Pitta to a hip injury in training camp that cost him most of the season.
In 2012 he caught 61 passes for 669 yards (11.0 yards per catch) and seven touchdowns. The Ravens also signed tight end Owen Daniels this offseason—this after he had eight good years under Kubiak in Houston, where he caught 385 balls for 4,617 yards and 29 touchdowns.
The tight end was a focal part of Kubiak's offense. According to Larry Hartstein of CBSSports.com, Houston quarterbacks targeted tight ends an average of 171 times the past two years under Kubiak, compared to 128 by Ravens passers.
At wide receiver, the Ravens bring back Torrey Smith and Marlon Brown, who combined to catch 124 passes for 1,552 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Ravens didn't get much production from their other receivers, so they went out and signed Steve Smith after the Carolina Panthers cut him.
In 13 seasons with Carolina, Smith grabbed 836 passes for 12,197 yards and scored 75 touchdowns.
Looking at Smith's 2013 numbers (745 yards and four TDs), it's easy to see that he'll upgrade that position and become another weapon for Flacco.
All of these weapons will lead to a big jump in production from the Ravens offense in 2014 if they are used properly. It's up to Kubiak to do so, and based on his history, there's little reason to doubt he will.
Improve the O-line
As mentioned before, the Ravens offensive line has to improve for this team to have success this year. The line allowed 48 sacks in 2013, which was tied with the Buffalo Bills for the fourth-most allowed in the NFL in 2013.
But having a hole at right tackle certainly isn't going to help this line improve in 2014. With Michael Oher having left in free agency, the Ravens are in need of a new starting right tackle. Second-year man Ricky Wagner is being projected to replace Oher. However, Wagner registered just 131 offensive snaps as a rookie in 2013, so he's a big unknown.
Since OTAs have begun, offensive guard Ryan Jensen has been shifted to tackle, where he'll compete with Wagner for the starting job. Jensen has worked at both left and right tackle during the Ravens' OTAs.
Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda are likely to retain their starting guard spots. Osemele will be entering his third NFL season and just his second as a full-time starting guard, so there's reason to believe he'll improve this year.
Jeremy Zuttah was acquired via a trade from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason, and head coach John Harbaugh confirmed that the new Ravens' lineman would replace Gino Gradkowski as the starting center. His addition alone will make the Ravens offensive line better.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Gradkowski was the worst-rated Ravens offensive player and overall center in 2013 with a minus-18.1 grade.
PPF gave Zuttah a significantly better grade at minus-1.9. He was ranked No. 22 out of 35 centers last year that played in at least 25 percent of their team's snaps, whereas Gradkowski was dead last at No. 35.
As for the left tackle spot, Eugene Monroe will man that position after a great 2013 season. According to Pro Football Focus, Monroe's plus-24.0 grade was the highest any Ravens player received in 2013.
If the Ravens can do all of these things in 2014, they'll have the offense needed to win the AFC North and make it back to the playoffs. As bad as its offense was last year, Baltimore trailed the Cincinnati Bengals by just one game for the division lead heading into Week 16.
Baltimore ended up losing the final two games and fell out of the playoff picture. The offense simply couldn't get it done when it needed to the most.
If the Ravens make the improvements mentioned above, they'll get back into the postseason in 2014.
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