OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With the Ravens trying to revamp the NFL’s 29th-ranked offense from a year ago, the focus has fallen on quarterback Joe Flacco and his teammates trying to learn Gary Kubiak’s system this spring.
But as players try to grasp the terminology and master the precision and timing of the West Coast offense, the Ravens’ new offensive coordinator is doing plenty of his own learning during organized team activities. Kubiak spent the offseason learning as much as he could about his new personnel, but the former Houston Texans head coach is using spring practices to determine players’ strengths and weaknesses within his system.
The current objective is more about experimentation than perfection with the start of the season still three months away.
“I think that’s been my challenge right now as a coach — to watch,” Kubiak said. “I’m throwing the kitchen sink at them, and then I have to kind of watch and see what sticks and what they do best. When we come back for [training] camp, I’ll probably have to cut some things down, but they’ve been very receptive. We have plenty of time from a teaching standpoint, plenty of time on the field.”
Of course, Kubiak hasn’t started with a clean slate in terms of learning his players as he’s been reunited with wide receiver Jacoby Jones, who had a strong relationship with the coach in Houston. General manager Ozzie Newsome also added tight end Owen Daniels and running back Justin Forsett, two former Houston Texans with experience playing in Kubiak’s system.
Those players have acted as a tutoring system for the likes of wide receivers Torrey Smith and Steve Smith, tight end Dennis Pitta, and running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce as they try to grasp a new playbook.
“There are a few people in each place that kind of know the way I’ve done things and how I do things,” Kubiak said. “Jacoby has been a big asset, Owen’s been a big asset with Dennis, and Justin’s been a big asset with Ray. I think the way things got situated before we got to work has been a big positive.”
The vision of Kubiak’s West Coast attack has been evident during OTAs as the passing game has been centered around shorter routes based on timing, quite a shift from the emphasis on the vertical passing game that existed under former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in Flacco’s first five seasons. The deep ball will still be a factor with Flacco’s arm strength and speedy options such as Torrey Smith and Jones on the outside, but Steve Smith and Pitta will be the focal points in the short-to-intermediate passing game.
The 35-year-old Smith will be of particular interest during training camp as the Ravens view him as more of a possession receiver, which is a departure from his reliance on speed and playing outside throughout his career.
The timing and precision of Kubiak’s system requires quarterbacks to have exceptional footwork, making that one of the biggest points of emphasis for Flacco this spring beyond the mastery of the playbook and learning the responsibilities of every other player on the field. That focus has allowed Kubiak to develop a new appreciation for the seventh-year quarterback, who isn’t exactly known around the league for his mobility.
“I knew he had a big arm, but I had no idea how good of an athlete he is,” Kubiak said. “[He is] a very good athlete. The things we like to do, [moving] around, the zone-pass schemes that we like to run, I think fit to a lot of his strengths. We just need to continue to get better at them. But his progress and where he’s at right now, I couldn’t be happier.”
The Baltimore offense remains a work in progress with questions still surrounding the state of the offensive line as the right tackle position remains up for grabs and new center Jeremy Zuttah continues to adjust to his new surroundings. The group appears promising on paper, but offensive line coach Juan Castillo’s ability to teach Kubiak’s zone-blocking system will be scrutinized after a 2013 season that was nothing short of disastrous in terms of line play.
As Kubiak pointed out on Tuesday, plenty of time remains to work out the details — like how to handle the running back position with Rice all but guaranteed to be suspended to start the season — but the Ravens are using spring practices to mold a vision of what the offense will look like with new pieces and a new philosophy in place.
“That’s my challenge right now. Finding out what we do best and making sure I don’t overload them,” Kubiak said. “But I did think it was very important that we challenge them mentally as well as physically, especially throughout the course of OTAs. I told them that. I said, ‘Guys, I’m going to throw a lot at you. We need to go make some mistakes, but let’s go make them hard. We’ll figure it out and make sure on opening day we’re doing what we do best.’”
Tuesday practice attendance
With the Ravens in the midst of their final week of voluntary OTAs, a number of veteran players were absent from the field on Tuesday including linebackers Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Daryl Smith, defensive linemen Haloti Ngata and Chris Canty, and offensive linemen Eugene Monroe and Marshal Yanda.
Others missing from practice included defensive tackle Terrence Cody (hip surgery), offensive lineman Jah Reid (calf strain), and wide receivers Kamar Aiken and Jace Davis.