Running game is the key to Ravens coordinator Gary Kubiak's offense

The Ravens' new offense will make its debut Thursday in preseason opener

August 04, 2014|Mike Preston

In theory, the West Coast offense doesn't appear to be ideal for an East Coast football team. Gary Kubiak's version, though, might be the perfect fit for the Ravens.

The short, quick passes still will be a major staple of their offense, but in Kubiak's system, the running game sets up the pass.

When John Elway was the Denver Broncos' quarterback, he won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1998 and 1999 with Kubiak as the offensive coordinator. Elway expects Kubiak to also be successful in Baltimore, where he will debut as the Ravens' offensive coordinator Thursday night against the San Francisco 49ers in their preseason opener.

"I ran the offense in college at Stanford," said Elway, now Denver's general manager. "The West Coast is a progressive offense, but Gary has done a great job of expanding off the base system with the zone-running game, and the boots and sprint-outs off that.

"He is getting to exhale and back to doing what he really likes to do, back to drawing up plays and coaching."

The big question, though, is whether Kubiak can rebuild the Ravens' running game, which averaged only 83 yards per game last season.

"We're done if we don't have a running game," said Harry Swayne, the Ravens' director of player development and a starting tackle on Denver's Super Bowl teams. "If we don't, it's going to be a tough year. We have to be patient, because there is a learning curve. It's not just that it's a new offense. A large part of the change is a new philosophy."

According to Elway and Swayne, the Ravens have a great teacher in Kubiak. He has been poised in training camp. On the field, he hasn't lost his temper, and always seems to be teaching.

There is no doubt that this is his offense and that he is running the show.

"It's a precision offense where everyone has to be on the same page," Elway said. "It's a lot of reps, timing, finding the right depths of routes. Gary is a really, really smart guy, a student of the game. He is extremely intelligent and good at building relationships."

But is he too demanding?

"He has Texas all over him and he'll talk to anybody," Swayne said. "He's a players' coach, a back-of-the-bus kind of guy with a good sense of humor. But he works hard and he has his work to do here. But he made it work in Houston, and he'll make it work here. Again, patience is a key."

It will be interesting because the Ravens have only one Pro Bowl lineman in right guard Marshal Yanda. By most standards, the Ravens have decent size, but they are not big at either tackle position.

Last year, they got overpowered in the middle, but Swayne said size isn't a major requirement under Kubiak. When Swayne played with the Broncos, they never had a lineman over 300 pounds, he said.

In this offense, linemen have to be smart and athletic. Like Denver, the Ravens will use a lot of zone blocking, but it will be in combination with double teams at the point of attack.

According to Swayne, Kubiak will teach his linemen to block and run defensive linemen from sideline to sideline, something Yanda and left guard Kelechi Osemele have done impressively in training camp.

Unlike linemen on other teams, the Ravens even will know coverages.

"I never worked so much on combination blocks with the guards and tight ends," Swayne said. "They made the running back go to a specific spot and said: 'Trust me, the offensive line will be blocking it this way. If they don't, it's on them, not you.'

"They are putting the same stuff in now. It's the same techniques. If a lineman is smart and can get in people's way, he can play a long time in this offense."

Ravens starting left tackle Eugene Monroe agreed.

"Things are changing. There's a lot that goes into an offense like this — a lot of different assignments," Monroe said. "It's so much different than what we've done here before. The Ravens don't bring anyone in here who doesn't have the ability to learn this stuff."

Precision plays a big part, which is why the Ravens have spent so much time working with quarterback Joe Flacco on his footwork. There are a lot of play-action fakes, and those passing plays have to look exactly like running plays.

Poor mechanics have caused Flacco to struggle in the past, and the Ravens have worked with him on things like planting his back foot before he throws so that he's not off balance.

Flacco has thrived in the no-huddle offense, so he should do well in an offense like the West Coast, which is predicated on quick decisions. There are questions about his accuracy, but Kubiak helped quarterbacks like Elway and Steve Young to Hall of Fame careers.

"John and Gary were good friends, but at the end of the day, it wasn't uncommon for John to get a tongue lashing if he gave a poor effort on a ball fake," Swayne said. "I think one of the toughest things Gary had to do was teach John we could win without him throwing the ball. "

In 11 seasons as Denver's coordinator, the Broncos had 66,501 yards in total offense, including 465 touchdowns, both NFL highs in that span. Kubiak also had offensive success with the Houston Texans before being fired as head coach last December.

"He is more of a quiet guy, not a screamer," Elway said. "Gary is good at giving a player an opportunity to succeed. He puts a player in position to succeed, and that's where he has earned his respect."

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