The Ravens have to do a lot of things differently if they want to engineer a bounce-back season in 2014.
They have to commit fewer turnovers than they did a year ago. They have to rush the passer better than they did down the stretch. They have to keep quarterback Joe Flacco more upright, convert more third downs into firsts, and make more stops in the same situation.
But of all the improvements they're seeking, one sits very clearly at the top of their must-do-better list: They have to run the ball more effectively.
Sure, as always, Flacco's performance will say a lot about how their season unfolds. There's no doubt he has to raise his game after throwing a career-high 22 interceptions in 2013.
But the first commandment of new Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak's scheme is "Thou Shalt Run It." For Flacco to prosper in a passing offense based on play-action fakes, the running game has to rattle and hum – churn out a lot more yards than it did in 2013.
As much as the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, the engine driving the Ravens' new offense is the ground game. It sets up the pass, opening the door for the rest of the offense.
If the football gods could guarantee Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh improvement in one area in 2014, I'm pretty sure he would ask for it to occur in the running game.
Remember how things fell apart in 2013? (Sorry, I know, you're trying to forget.) The blockers couldn't open holes. The backs couldn't break tackles. On and on it went. Normally one of the league's best, the Ravens' ground game produced just 3.1 yards per carry for the season, an all-time low for the franchise.
As a new season begins, a big question is circulating: Has enough been done to fix the problem?
An effort has been made, no doubt. Three-fifths of the line's starting five has changed since the end of last season. Now it's Jeremy Zuttah at center, Kelechi Osemele at left guard and Rick Wagner at right tackle. That's two-thirds of the interior, where the Ravens were repeatedly stuffed a year ago. Both of the top running backs, Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, have shed pounds. There's a new blocking back, Kyle Juszczyk, who looks ready to pop, and several more targets for Flacco, hopefully improving the passing game enough to keep defenses from crowding the box.
But with all due respect to those involved, the Ravens are really counting on a system more than individuals to improve their running game – the system Kubiak has honed since the 1990s as an offensive coordinator in Denver and a Head Coach in Houston. Well-known in NFL circles and long associated with the Broncos and Texans, the system now resides in Baltimore.
I'm sure the terminology is familiar by now. Zone-stretch blocking. One-cut running. It's a way of doing things that has produced 14 thousand-yard rushers in Kubiak's 19 seasons as a play-caller in Denver and Houston.
When asked last weekend how it was coming along in training camp, Kubiak responded as the running game techie that he is.
"It's something that we're going to do very well. We're a zone team. We're a rhythmic team trying to do the same thing a lot of different ways. That's the way we teach, and I see our guys responding to it," he said
Sure, it matters whether Rice regains his elusiveness, whether Pierce is healthy and productive, whether the new linemen gel. But the system rules. Incredibly, none of those 14 thousand-yard rushers was a top 50 draft pick.
I wouldn't dare say it's irrelevant who plays, because players are the fuel running any system. But make no mistake, the ability to thrive in Kubiak's system will determine who plays and how much.
"The most important thing is that we get all five (starting linemen) every day for every rep," Kubiak said. "The more reps we get, the better we'll be."
It's an all-or-nothing game. If the Ravens don't run the ball better, their offense will sputter, as it did a year ago, and the season becomes iffier. But if the past is any precedent, that's about to change.