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West Coast offense is the plight of Baltimore

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Baltimore and West Coast offenses don’t go together, at least when it comes to passing.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Have you ever tried to fit a square peg in a round hole? That is the best analogy for the Baltimore Ravens attempting to run a West Coast offense with the personnel that they currently have on offense. However, their offensive personnel does match with a Vertical or Air Coryell offense.

The differences between the West Coast offense and the Vertical offense are not massive, but are different in how they are carried out. The Vertical offense attacks the seams, allowing speedy receivers to get up the field on deep passing plays. It also usually employs a power blocking scheme and a north/south running back. Often times, a powerful fullback is a part of the running game as a blocker.

It also holds a great emphasis on sideline throws. In Baltimore’s case, they had a quarterback in Joe Flacco who could throw the ball outside of the numbers. It also includes mid-range passes off of the play action pass. The Ravens were also able to run more plays out of the shotgun, which Flacco has been comfortable with since his time as a Delaware Blue Hen.

On the other hand, the West Coast offense attacks the field through shorter passes, to open up deeper passes and a more horizontal running game. Often times, pass and run plays can be called interchangeably in similar down and yardage situations. Most routes are ran within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. Instead of the traditional seven-step drop or shotgun formation, most passing plays are three-step drops.

Included in the West Coast system is a passing game that is based on crosses, a receiver that needs to make reads on the fly and a quarterback that can communicate with said receiver, mid-play. As for the running game, the quick passes are supposed to open up the run, by stretching out the field.

Shifty running backs are appreciated in the West Coast offense for their ability to stretch the field. East/west runners, a la LeSean McCoy, are often successful in West Coast schemes. Quarterbacks with great mobility often flourish in West Coast systems, due to being able to make blitzers pay for overcompensating with their feet.

Let’s first review pros of the Vertical offensive passing game.

We are going to go back to one of Baltimore’s most famous plays, dubbed “The Mile High Miracle” or “Flacco Fling”. In this play, Baltimore ran a play that Madden players would know as “Four Verticals”. The Ravens would attack the seams, resulting in Jacoby Jones finding the end zone by getting past the cornerback and safety:

The infamous “Mile High Miracle”.
CBS Sports

It wouldn’t be the last time that we saw a similar concept being ran by Baltimore. Later on during the same playoff run, they went five wide, flanking out running back Ray Rice, as well as tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. Rice would run a short curl route, as did Dickson, but the other three receivers ran seam routes. Flacco would ultimately hit a leaping Anquan Boldin for a touchdown:

Joe Flacco hits Anquan Boldin for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLVII.
CBS Sports

Now let’s assess the pros of the West Coast passing game from Baltimore.

The West Coast passing game looks for shorter, crossing routes, allowing for the quarterback to hit open receivers. In this touchdown pass from Flacco to Terrance West, there are few pick routes from players crossing, causing confusion among the defense:

Joe Flacco throws a short touchdown pass on a play action rollout.
NFL

Another play in the West Coast offense where Baltimore was successful was against the New England Patriots in 2016. Flacco quickly released the pass to Steve Smith Sr., who ran a quick post route:

Joe Flacco throws his second touchdown pass of the game to Steve Smith Sr. in Baltimore’s 2016 matchup versus New England.
NBC Sports

So we can see that passing can be successful with the “right” personnel. Smith Sr. was a tough receiver, who could beat up cornerbacks during routes and go for the ball. He also was a crisp route-runner. Breshad Perriman and Mike Wallace are not those type of guys.

Larger, speedy receivers have trouble operating within the offense because they are covered easily in short-yardage situations. Although Wallace is speedy, he isn’t a ridiculously big receiver. However, he doesn’t possess the same type of route-running ability and sure-handedness that Smith Sr. did. Same goes for Perriman. The thing that both players can do is blow the top off of a defense. However, the offense doesn’t fit their talents.

The next thing that I’m going to say will be prefaced with the belief that a quarterback being paid as much as Flacco should be good no matter what system that he’s in. His reads have been horrendous, but the least that Marty Mornhinweg could do is make it a bit easier on him.

He doesn’t.

The offense also doesn’t fit the talents of its quarterback. It just doesn’t. Flacco is coming off of a back injury, so he isn’t as mobile. Why on Earth would he be stuck within an offense that doesn’t use his talent to throw the ball deep?

Let’s compare the stats of Flacco in both offensive schemes.

In his first five seasons under the Vertical offense, Flacco averaged a completion percentage of 60.2%, 3,591 yards, 20 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and 6.9 yards per attempt. The percentage of his passes for a touchdown were 3.9% and the percentage of his passes for an interception were 2.5%.

As for the West Coast offense, Flacco has played within the system for almost four seasons now. Taking out his first year (2014) of being in the West Coast system with the innovative Gary Kubiak, Flacco has been pedestrian. Flacco has averaged a completion percentage of 64.4%, 4,111 yards, 20 touchdowns, 18 interceptions and 6.4 yards per attempt. 3.2% of his passes of his passes are for touchdowns and 2.7% for interceptions per 16 games.

With Kubiak at the helm, Flacco had a completion percentage of 62.1%, 3,986 yards, 27 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and 7.2 yards per attempt. 4.9% of his passes were touchdowns, while just 2.2% of his passes were interceptions.

So what’s the difference between a Kubiak and Marc Trestman/Mornhinweg-led offense?

The personnel! It’s always been the personnel. In 2014, Baltimore had a shifty, quick back in Justin Forsett that could hide behind a zone-blocking scheme, that featured athletic offensive linemen. Eugene Monroe, Kelechi Osemele, Jeremy Zuttah, Marshal Yanda and Ricky Wagner were the starting offensive linemen. Four of them are no longer Ravens, while Yanda is out for the season with a fractured ankle.

Although Torrey Smith was a holdover from the Vertical offense days, he at least had a decent season in 2014. Smith finished the year with 49 receptions for 767 receiving yards and a career-high 11 touchdowns. He also no longer plays for Baltimore. Smith Sr., who was 35 in 2014, had a season where he caught 79 passes for 1,065 yards and six touchdown. He retired after the 2016 season.

My point is that, when you don’t have the right personnel to run a West Coast system, why would you continue to run said system? It’s the definition of insanity, doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome.

The West Coast offense is the Ravens’ flu and they are in need of a doctor, pronto.