Baltimore Ravens seeking a certain brand of big – optimizing the zone blocking

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During the Ravens’ Super Bowl winning 2012 season, much of their late success was thanks to the sudden cohesion of their offensive line. The combination of McKinnie, Osemele, Birk, Yanda and Oher – from left to right – proved to be the most effective of any all year, working in unison to provide Joe Flacco the time he needed for his historic postseason run.

That late season success made the team’s decision to bring in Juan Castillo just before the Super Bowl – first as a consultant, eventually as the newly minted “Run Game Coordinator” – all the more questionable. But on the team went, fixing what didn’t seem to be broken.

John Harbaugh lauded Castillo’s ability as a coach and tutor, calling him the best teacher of the game he had ever been around (the two coached together in Philadelphia). At the time, it seemed like the rich getting richer; however, it proved to be a much rockier transition than Ravens fans anticipated.

Matt Birk was the only difference in personnel between the line that lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl and the one that broke camp in 2013. Yet, the biggest difference of all was the change in blocking schemes. Prior to Castillo’s hiring, the Ravens’ offense operated out of a mixed scheme that featured more power running than it did zone blocking.

For those unfamiliar, the difference between the two lies in the pre-snap responsibilities and the amount of information the linemen work with and process. In a power running scheme, the blocking responsibilities are man-to-man, and it is often the center’s responsibility to assign his fellow linemen to defenders before the ball is snapped. In a zone scheme, each blocker is responsible for the “zone” directly in front of them. Their first responsibility is to determine whether they are covered or uncovered – that is, is there a defender lined up directly in their zone? If they are covered, they must engage the defender in their zone. The uncovered linemen are responsible for quickly positioning themselves after the ball is snapped in a way that allows them to not only help their neighbor with their zone assignment, but move to the second level to engage a linebacker directly after. After the ball is snapped in a zone scheme, the entire offensive line can be seen laterally shifting towards the play-side to best position themselves against the defenders.

This may seem like a lot to process – and that’s because it is. Power running consists of mauling your assignment. Zone blocking requires linemen that not only move their feet quickly, but their brains too. So one may imagine a line going through significant growing pains when asked to make this change.

2013 was a prime example of these growing pains, and the Baltimore Ravens, a team predicated on running the football, suddenly had their success turned upside down. Fans looked for people to blame, and the primary targets were naturally those who weren’t a part of the Super Bowl run.

Gino Gradkowski, in the midst of his first season as a starter in the NFL, struggled mightily replacing the All-Pro, Matt Birk. Pro Football Focus (PFF), an independent source for quantitative football analytics, had Gradkowski as the worst at his position by a relatively wide margin. Meanwhile, Juan Castillo came under scrutiny for the early problems with his scheme, and Harbaugh too, for instituting the change.

There was turnover on the line as the season progressed, as Osemele – who had been dealing with a back issue – was tabled for the season, forcing backup center A.Q. Shipley into the left guard position. Meanwhile, Bryant McKinnie’s struggles at left tackle forced the organization to trade a fourth and fifth round pick in exchange for former Jacksonville Jaguars’ first round pick, Eugene Monroe. The line that had started the season one player away from Super Bowl champions had suddenly become a hodgepodge with little-to-no chemistry, in a scheme they were largely unfamiliar with.

When you add to the fold the fact that their running backs couldn’t stay healthy and their passing game was suffering from a dearth of playmakers, it isn’t hard to understand why the run game, and offense as a whole, struggled so mightily.

The big question is, was the failure a matter of transitional adjustment or incompatible personnel?

It reasons to believe the organization would not have made the switch to a zone scheme unless they truly believed it would be beneficial in the long-term. Concurrently, it also reasons to believe they expected the change to not be crippling in the short-term, seeing as how they are a franchise accustomed to annual success. Therefore, the front office and coaching staff had to think that the pieces in place were at least moderately compatible with a zone scheme. The hiring of former Texans head coach and zone-blocking guru, Gary Kubiak, only further affirms these theories.

Where does this leave the Ravens heading into 2014? Eugene Monroe is currently priority number one for the team to resign, and the possibility remains that he could be franchised. According to PFF, Monroe was the most valuable lineman for the Ravens last year. On the other side, Michael Oher’s contract is also up, but there are far more questions about his ability to succeed in a zone-scheme than there are Monroe. The likelihood of the Ravens bringing both back is low, and I believe there will be a new right tackle by the time September comes around.

It is widely assumed that both Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele are athletic enough to be successful in a zone scheme, and as long as KO comes back healthy from his back surgery, they will be penciled in at the start of the season – most likely at guard, although Osemele could slide over to the vacancy left by Oher. As far as the center is concerned, Matt Birk recently said that Gino Gradkowski is “the guy” for the Ravens moving forward, but that doesn’t mask the fact that he was frequently too slow off the line and lacked leverage – which at 6’3” shouldn’t be an area of concern.

That is why it seems likely that at the very least, the team will bring in somebody to push Gradkowski. When Gary Kubiak was in Houston, he executed a sign-and-trade that brought Chris Myers to the Texans from Kubiak’s former team the Broncos, where he presumably helped scout and draft Myers. Chris Myers has since been named an All-Pro two times, and is integral to the success the Texans experienced running the football under Kubiak. Myers played guard at the University of Miami before being selected in the sixth round of the 2005 NFL Draft and converted to center. This could help us decipher what kind of prospect the Ravens will look for in the upcoming draft, should they go that route.

The team could also opt to go the free agent route. The top center on the market was Cleveland’s Alex Mack, however the Browns announced that they have placed the transition tag on the former Cal Bear (a net saving of roughly $1 million when compared to the franchise tag, however they wouldn’t receive draft pick compensation should another team agree to a deal the Browns won’t match). After Mack, the talent drops off significantly at the center position.

With the cap room freed up by restructuring Suggs, avoiding the franchise tag with Pitta, and cutting ties with Leach and McClain, the Ravens have some flexibility on the open market. They will surely fill some holes from free agency, but the holes they choose will shed light on which problems they feel are most pressing, or are most in need of immediate production.

If they choose to draft and develop a prospect, that may imply they still have expectations for Gino moving forward – assuming they aren’t choosing a center in the first or second round. Matt Birk said himself that it took three years before he was fully comfortable taking control at center. Perhaps Gradkowski simply needs his due time to develop. Even if this is the case, there will be somebody brought in to light the proverbial fire.

It is obvious that Kubiak, the Ravens, and, well, nearly every team in any sport, value versatility due to the convenience of having a player who can play multiple positions. Myers was a guard at Miami, and Gradkowski was a guard at Delaware. Therefore, it seems logical to look at the offensive line prospects who have demonstrated versatility in the past.

Notre Dame’s Zack Martin is a likely first round pick who could probably be plugged in at any position on the line. Martin is a near-perfect fit for a zone-blocking scheme, and this fact makes his chances of being selected by Baltimore relatively high should they decide this is a major need. I find it more likely, however, that the team will opt to draft a guard/center in the mid-to-later rounds.

My personal favorite of the bunch is Penn State’s John Urschel, who won the William V. Campbell award as college football’s top student-athlete and was published for his work titled, “Instabilities of the Sun-Jupiter-Asteroid Three Body Problem.” Suffice to say, Urschel checks out just fine in the intellect department. A projected third or fourth round pick, he played guard at Penn State and has extremely quick feet to couple with his cerebral savvy.

Rounding out the potential selections of interior linemen that could fit a zone scheme are Nevada’s Joel Bitonio (second or third round), Notre Dame’s Chris Watt (third or fourth round), Colorado State’s Weston Richburg (third or fourth round), Alabama’s Anthony Steen (third or fourth round), and Vanderbilt’s Wesley Johnson (fifth or sixth round). With the exception of Martin and maybe Urschel, the selection of these players would likely signal Gradkowski as the starting center heading into 2014. Should the team see Osemele at right tackle, the emphasis on guard would increase, but nearly all of the prospects listed could contribute adequately at multiple positions.

The zone-scheme is here to stay, and that means every corresponding move to the offensive line is with the vision and goal of perfecting it. I, for one, am excited to watch it unfold.