Charting The Ravens’ New Run Game Strategy
In an offseason during which we may not see the Baltimore front office make many or any splash free agent signings (cap funds will be tight), the addition of Greg Roman to the offensive coaching staff could end up being the biggest addition the team has made by the start of the 2017 season.
Roman’s official title is Senior Offensive Assistant and Tight Ends Coach. If former offensive coordinator Marc Trestman is known as the “quarterback whisperer,” Roman should be dubbed “the run game fixer” (thinking back to the fixer role George Clooney played in Michael Clayton). Between his two full stints as Offensive Coordinator (“OC”) with the 49ers and Bills, he led top five rush offenses.
Make no mistake, Roman should run the show when it comes to the running game. I say should because we don’t exactly know how the run game orchestration will play out with Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg also having input.
In San Francisco and Buffalo, Roman had the autonomy to design and execute run plays as the OC. You can’t have two composers leading an orchestra. The hope here is that Roman gets to take the reins of a ground attack that has been in retreat since Gary Kubiak left the team following the 2014 season.
Beyond the statistical output that Roman’s rushing units have yielded, it’s the level of sophistication, creativity, and diversity that the former Ravens’ offensive line assistant brings to the table that sets him apart from other play-callers. He’s respected as having one of the most tactically challenging ground games to prepare for.
Let’s take a deeper look at the Roman running game.
Formation and Personnel
Under the direction of Trestman and Mornhinweg, the Baltimore run game was highly predictable and static. A lot of open sets, shotgun formations, and single back looks. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk may have earned a Pro Bowl berth, but he made his presence felt more as a pass catcher on third downs than as a lead, isolation blocker.
The Ravens had measured success when they ran outside zone stretch in 2016, in particular when they ran from two and three-tight packages. Think back to the opening drive against the Washington Redskins when they operated almost exclusively with a three-tight package and Terrance West had a field day. Of course, we didn’t see those run plays consistently employed throughout the course of the game, and there was little to no variation of the plays that were drawn up from those sets.
Roman traditionally favors more “heavy” personnel packages – two tight ends, two backs, three tight ends, unbalanced looks. Another way to think about his personnel groupings is that Roman leans heavily to 21 (two backs, one tight, two wide), 22 (two backs, two tight, one wide), and 23 (one back, three tight, one wide). He’ll use an extra lineman or linemen when it makes sense to add extra blocking juice.
Power is a staple play for Roman. We saw the Ravens run some power plays effectively featuring Ronnie Stanley as the puller late in the season.
But the difference with how Roman runs power is that it won’t be a static play design. It’ll be a multi-layered play that injects a second motion action (maybe a fake jet sweep, or some other misdirection action) to get the defense out of position to chase a play back-side, opening up the play-side run even wider.
Ravens fans only need to go back to Super Bowl 47 when Frank Gore ran a wide sweep to score a TD to see a multi-level run play in action. On the play, Colin Kaepernick ran to the weakside, giving the appearance of an outside run, while Gore took the handoff to the strong-side with the fullback and left guard pulling out in front, giving the Baltimore front three different run possibilities to account for from a stacked two-back set. What made the play even more difficult to decipher was that Gore faked as if he was receiving a toss to the weak-side, only to take the handoff in the other direction.
That play is a perfect illustration of all of the window dressing Roman will throw at a defense. His objective is to makes defenders think, and once they start thinking, they aren’t going to be as fast to the ball. Here’s another look…
One of the interesting subplots to look out for this season is how Roman accounts for Joe Flacco being less of a running threat than Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor were for him in his previous stints. Flacco hasn’t been used on naked boots or read option plays since the Cam Cameron days. But the fake run action from the QB position has served Roman well, and I would expect that we’ll see more of it from Flacco in 2017 to keep defenses on their heels.
Play Design and Variation
What makes the Roman run game unique compared to what the Baltimore run game looked like last season is that he’ll stretch a defensive front horizontally, and make them defend from sideline-to-sideline.
A full complement of sweep plays (with a pin/pull block combination) will be a welcome sight. Fans can also expect to see more toss sweeps where the toss action should be complemented by misdirection movement that forces the defense to respect the back-side action just as much as the play-side action. Again, Roman will present plenty of two-way and three-way looks to confuse the opposition.
The wide receivers should also be more involved as runners, or at the very least, serve as believable decoys off of jet sweep and late motion action. Overall, pre-snap motion is a prominent weapon in Roman’s arsenal. The “move” guy is as much of a threat to take a handoff (think Ted Ginn in his San Fran days) as he is a setup guy for the backs. Motion also applies to the blockers (tight ends, fullbacks) who are regularly deployed as lead isolation blockers.
Running Back Usage and Rotation
The Ravens have historically run outside zone stretch plays, and as I mentioned before, West did well in those situations.
Roman ran a good dose of outside zone stretch with LeSean McCoy leading the way, and with his zone stretch plays, his backs have more options to keep the play outside or cut upfield sharply depending on how well the edge is set. West had success when he made decisive cuts last season, and in Roman’s zone-based scheme, he could really thrive.
All of which brings me to another critical point – Roman will utilize multiple backs and play to their strengths. West and Kenneth Dixon present different strengths and complement each other pretty well. They can even operate together in two back sets. Look for both runners to get their chances to run the ball out of various formations and play sets.
With the 49ers, Roman did a masterful job of mixing and matching with Gore, Kendall Hunter, and LaMichael James. Gore was the all-around bell cow, but Roman kept him fresh with Hunter (more of a slasher), while James was the perimeter threat.
In Buffalo, Roman had McCoy of course, but Shady was spelled effectively by Karlos Williams and Mike Gillislee. The fact that Williams and Gillislee both had stretches where they were just as effective as McCoy (at least from a pure production standpoint), speaks to what Roman can do when he doesn’t have to rely on a proven, Pro Bowl rock-handler.
The Ravens haven’t presented a respectable ground game (one that defenses need to game plan for first) since the 2014 season. And frankly, even though that team had success running the ball, the overall run game performance has been tapering off since the 2011 season. Baltimore is simply not a feared, physical offense like they’ve been known to be.
Roman’s imprint on the ground game will go a long way in restoring the team to what they’ve been in years past. Even though we’re in a passing age, the Ravens with Flacco at the helm have proven that they can’t field a viable offense without a viable ground attack attached. If the team can get the rush offense righted, the play-action passing game that Flacco has been so effective executing will regain its legs.
Volume will be the key. The Ravens talked a big game about being devoted and committed to running the ball the last two seasons under Trestman, but when they had opportunities to stack carries, the pass-happy coordinator invariably turned to the air.
It’ll be up to Roman and Mornhinweg to collaborate and turn things around.
The time has come for the Ravens to be a run-first attack once again and restore balance to their offense.