New Ravens assistant coaches Greg Roman and Joe D'Alessandris are expected to try to bolster the run game by integrating more downhill blocking schemes without abandoning the zone approach.
The words "overhauling" and "revamping" have been used at times to describe the work that Greg Roman, the Ravens' senior offensive assistant in charge of the run game, has undertaken in his first season. But those are not the terms he would use.
"I don't think there's any of that," Roman said. "I just think we want them to really refocus, retool, and just come up with a plan that we felt suited us best moving forward and the whole organization. I think a lot of staffs do it every year, but this kind of gave us an opportunity to really start at ground zero and see what we want to do."
Whichever verb Roman prefers, the point remains that the rush offense has much to work on before the season opens Sept. 10 at the Cincinnati Bengals.
Only four other teams in the NFL averaged fewer than the 91.4 yards per game recorded in 2017 by the Ravens, who also ranked 21st with 4.0 yards per carry. The lack of punch in the run game ushered former offensive line coach Juan Castillo out the door to the Buffalo Bills and created some hand-wringing moments for embattled offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg before his job security was verified by head coach John Harbaugh.
The organization moved quickly in the offseason to address the rush offense. On Jan. 12, the team added Roman, who had been fired by Bills coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan on Sept. 16, to the coaching staff. Seven days later, the club hired Joe D'Alessandris to replace Castillo.
D'Alessandris brings 40 years of coaching experience, including the offensive lines for the Kansas City Chiefs, Bills and San Diego Chargers, but Roman was perhaps the key centerpiece.
In Roman's five full years as offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers (2011-2014) and the Bills (2015), his offenses ranked in the top eight in the NFL in rushing, with Buffalo leading the league in that department. The caveat is that both units were led by mobile quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor.
"Greg has a great history of running the ball in Buffalo, running the ball in San Francisco. We're lucky to have him," center John Urschel said. "And Joe is a coach who has been around and has a ton of experience. So we're just thankful to have these experienced coaches to try to bring something to the Ravens."
The first priority for Roman and D'Alessandris is redesigning the blocking schemes in the run game. While injuries forced last year's squad to start six variations of the offensive line, the unit seemed to get little push off the line of scrimmage.
Urschel, right guard Marshal Yanda and center Ryan Jensen said there has been an early emphasis on downhill blocking. That suggests that the offense is eager to become more of a north-south team, which is always welcomed by offensive linemen.
"Downhill football is the best kind of football," Jensen said with a smile.
But Roman said the Ravens are not abandoning the zone-blocking schemes favored by Castillo.
"I thought they did some really good things here," Roman said. "There are some things we want to keep and build on, and I think we're definitely going to try to expand on that. Some weeks will be a little bit more of this and some weeks will be a little bit more of that. But we'll come together on a week-to-week basis and figure out where we want to draw from. As we get to know the players even better, that will kind of let us know who is good at what and we can create some matchups in the run game."
D'Alessandris and Roman said the goal is to be versatile enough to use different blocking schemes based on the overall game plan and opposing defenses.
"We're going to have a variety of different ways to block people," D'Alessandris said. "It's not going to be one specific scheme, but it's going to be a combination of different schemes and ways to do it, and it's going to be based on the opponent, too. You might not see the same thing two weeks in a row. But we're going to develop something with consistency, especially fundamentals and technique."
In addition to the coaches, the Ravens will feature two new starters. Gone are right tackle Rick Wagner (Detroit Lions) and center Jeremy Zuttah (49ers). Through a series of organized team activities and a mandatory three-day minicamp, James Hurst has been the right tackle, while Urschel and Jensen have rotated at center. Urschel and Jensen have also lined up at right guard, but Yanda figures to be the starter there once he fully recovers from offseason surgery on his left shoulder.
Harbaugh likes what he has seen thus far from the new-look offensive line.
"Joe D has done a tremendous job of coaching those guys," he said. "I think they've really picked up Marty's pass-game stuff and Greg's run-game stuff. They're a very smart group, very attention-to-detail-oriented. They're a big, physical group, which is what we like and what we want. We'll see where it goes, but I am pretty happy with them right now."
The Ravens generated some excitement by adding free-agent wide receiver Jeremy Maclin to pair with speedsters Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman for a passing attack that ranked 12th a year ago. But there is a sentiment that the team must be more productive on the ground if it wants to improve on last year's 8-8 overall record and end a two-year streak of missing the NFL playoffs.
"Obviously, we want to run the football more this year, and we didn't get to do that [last] year," Yanda said. "Everybody in the building wants to get it right. To be a better football team, we want to [run effectively]. In the end, though, it comes down to wins. We'll do anything it takes to win."