Just what Baltimore Ravens fans wanted: a third straight offseason with a new offensive coordinator.
The tradeoff of finding successful offensive coordinators in the NFL is that they will not stay forever; head coaching jobs will open, and the top coordinators often fill open positions. That has been the case for the Ravens in back-to-back offseasons as Jim Caldwell and Gary Kubiak each departed after one season as offensive coordinator with the team.
Both of those coaches were head coaches prior to arriving in Baltimore. To fill Kubiak’s void, the Ravens executed the same game plan, hiring experienced offensive aficionado Marc Trestman, formerly the head coach of the Chicago Bears for the past two seasons.
Hailing from the Canadian Football League, Trestman joined the Bears with an impressive pedigree north of the border. During his 2008-12 stint with the Montreal Alouettes, Trestman helped lead his team to two Grey Cup titles and was named the 2009 CFL Coach of the Year.
Developing a reputation as one of the brightest coaching minds in Canada, Trestman graduated to the Bears, where he experienced mediocrity. In two seasons, the Bears achieved a record of 13-19, failing to make the postseason in either year. By the end of 2014, Trestman developed a reputation as a quality offensive coach, but not quite one who could run an NFL team right now, due to struggling defenses and some questionable personnel decisions.
Some NFL coaches are simply better coordinators than head coaches; Trestman seems to fall into that category. His high regard on the offensive end well outweighs his ability to help put together a respectable defense, which makes offensive coordinator a more intriguing utilization of his coaching skill set.
That led to Ravens head coach John Harbaugh acting fast and hiring Trestman, who earned the job over former Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Trestman also received quarterback Joe Flacco’s approval during Harbaugh’s decision.
Now that Kubiak is out and Trestman is officially in, what is in store?
Ravens fans fell in love with Kubiak in one season and rightfully so. Flacco had his best statistical output of his career (his 27 touchdowns and 3,986 passing yards were both career highs) and the ship was righted on the ground, led by journeyman-turned-Pro-Bowler Justin Forsett, who finished with a career-high 1,266 yards on the ground.
The run blocking was improved, the passing offense was simplified and the offensive seemed to gel more than in 2013 under Caldwell’s watch. With Trestman in Baltimore, expect some similar tendencies.
In a joint conference call with Trestman on Wednesday, Harbaugh made note of the run blocking scheme, saying “I anticipate that to stay the same.” With offensive line coach Juan Castillo still in Baltimore, it would be wrong to think otherwise. Trestman’s offenses in Chicago – helped in part by offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer – were not much different in terms of run blocking.
Both Baltimore’s and Chicago’s offense had the linemen work at both the first and second level, and the blocking duties of the tight end were not dissimilar.
The athleticism of Baltimore’s linemen allowed them to perform well in 2014, particularly due to their ability to reach the second level and seal off blocks for Forsett and Co. Chicago’s line did the same.
Here, the tight end is isolated with a block on the edge, the wide receivers have blocking duties, the first line of defense is handled and the right tackle is working upfield to the second level of defense.
As running back Matt Forte begins to hit the hole, the tight end has the edge sealed off and both the right tackle and center have worked their way upfield.
The ability of the tackle and center to seal off their blocks protects Forte’s left side, opening up an easy run lane.
Ravens right tackle Ricky Wagner and center Jeremy Zuttah – as well as the rest of the offensive line – proved themselves in 2014 as linemen who were athletic enough to work upfield and seal off blocks such as on this play. Having an adequate blocking tight end – whether that is Crockett Gillmore or Owen Daniels if he returns – will help in the run game.
In 2013, Baltimore’s primary tight ends – Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson – simply could not block, leaving the run game with little hope for success, as the offensive line was already performing poorly. But in 2014, an improved offensive line combined with the blocking ability of Daniels and Gillmore gave the run game options.
Trestman’s offenses benefitted from tight ends who were capable of helping out in the run game; he will likely have similar success in Baltimore.
As noted, not much of the run game will change. Baltimore’s starting offensive line figures to stay intact heading into next season – assuming Wagner is healthy enough by September – which should bring continuity, therefore leading to many of the same run-game tendencies. Keeping Castillo means more zone blocking, which worked well for Baltimore last season.
There is one fear, though: Bears fullback Tony Fiammetta had 223 snaps (per Pro Football Focus) in 2013, but just six in 2014. Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk had 465 snaps in 2014. With the immense talent and diversity Juszczyk provides, having his role diminish in the offense would not be a good sign.
Juszczyk flourished in year two under Kubiak’s watch and losing his contribution to the offense would be one negative of Trestman’s arrival. Perhaps Juszczyk’s receiving ability will be more heavily utilized? Only time will tell.
Where Trestman’s presence will be most felt is in the passing game. One of his biggest contributions to the NFL in Chicago was the reincarnation of veteran quarterback Josh McCown. Seemingly out of nowhere, the journeyman backup quarterback thrived in 2013 during his eight games in relief of an injured Jay Cutler.
McCown amassed career highs in touchdowns (13), completion percentage (66.5), yards per game (228.6), yards per attempt (8.2), touchdown percentage (5.8) and interception percentage (0.4). In the following year with the Tampa Bay Bucaneers, McCown threw more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (11) and his completion percentage dipped all the way down to 56.3.
It is safe to say the offense in Chicago played a major role in McCown’s success. Likewise, Cutler had two of his most successful NFL seasons under Trestman’s tutelage. In two seasons with Trestman, Cutler finished with two of his three highest single-season completion percentage totals including 66.0% in 2014, a career high. His touchdown percentage of 5.4 in 2013 was his second-highest of his nine-year career.
Cutler was ultimately benched late in the 2014 season in favor of Jimmy Clausen, however he was not completely defunct of success in Chicago with Trestman.
A major reason for the success of the quarterbacks in Chicago lies in the simplicity of Trestman’s passing offense and his West Coast offense background. The offense is predicated on short, high-percentage passes that help sustain drives and open up the run game. Kubiak’s offense showed some of this in 2014 with the Ravens.
Likely gone are the days of Flacco airing it out downfield (his seven completions of 40+ yards in 2014 tied for a career low), as Trestman’s offense has some similarities to Kubiak’s in terms of the short passing game. Yes, Flacco can air it out with the best of them, but what works better? Long, hit-or-miss passes or short, high-percentage, low-risk throws which help control possession of the ball?
Trestman’s offense in Baltimore will likely favor the latter.
One aspect of Trestman’s offenses in Chicago was his utilization of the bunch technique with wide receivers and sometimes tight ends. It was so successful and prevalent that it stood out when the Ravens squared off against the Bears in 2013. The Bears, Steelers and Patriots are a few teams that have had success with this tactic; regardless of Baltimore’s offensive coordinator in the past, this method has rarely been used with the Ravens.
It often works so well that it can be questioned why all teams do not use it.
Having three receivers bunched together gives the offense options, with either screens or short passes over the middle as easy choices.
Here is an example of how the bunch can send the defenders downfield, opening up things underneath:
The completion here was to the tight end coming across the middle. Having the bunch at the top of the screen allowed the Bears to send two of the receivers downfield, keeping one tight end and one receiver underneath for wide-open reception opportunities.
Simple and efficient.
Another benefit of formations similar to the one above is that it gives the receivers a chance to pick up yards after the catch by spreading out the defense and acquiring open space to make a play. If wide receiver Torrey Smith returns to the team in 2015, Trestman’s offense should utilize his speed after the catch. A speedster such as Michael Campanaro could also thrive with Trestman.
Here, the Bears have three receivers at the top, one of which is a tight end.
Similar to the first pass play diagnosed above, the Bears send two of the three receivers downfield, leaving one back to work underneath the deeper routes.
The receiver on the outside matches up one-on-one with the cornerback, while the tight end’s seam route occupies two defenders, opening up space for wide receiver Brandon Marshall to cross over the middle.
One of the two St. Louis Rams defenders blocked off by the tight end eventually sets free and picks up Marshall, but not in enough time as he is caught playing catchup.
By the time Marshall hauls in the pass, he has created ample separation, leaving room upfield to pick up yards after the catch.
When receivers are running free over the middle such as Marshall is on this play, it is easy to see why Cutler and McCown’s completion percentages were so high.
If the short passing game is utilized in Baltimore as it was in Chicago, expect Flacco to build on his successful 2014 season. His unmatched arm strength will not be utilized as much with Trestman as it was pre-Kubiak, but if he is completing passes and keeping the offense moving, who cares?
The simplification of the passing game will be a key asset of Trestman’s arrival.
By the time the Ravens needed an offensive coordinator this offseason, the market was diminishing. However, Trestman was at the top of the available coordinators on the market, and the fact that Harbaugh acted so fast in choosing Kubiak’s successor shows both the team’s confidence in Trestman and proof that he was a top commodity, as the Ravens needed to swoop up Trestman before he signed elsewhere.
The Ravens can expect similar decision-making in the run game, save the presence of the fullback, however Juszczyk’s skill set could outweigh Trestman’s underutilization of the fullback position.
Through the air, expect an efficient Flacco who will put up numbers similar to his 2014 output. Trestman’s offense is more diverse than Kubiak’s, who – while he is a successful offensive mind – uses fairly basic tactics.
There should not be a major transition from Kubiak to Trestman. Baltimore’s offense will have some new wrinkles with Trestman leading the way, but the loss of Kubiak will not be something that should hold the team back in 2015.