The Ravens are banking on an encouraging start against the San Francisco 49ers in the preseason opener to set an aggressive tone for their red-zone offense under the direction of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.
Last season, they were one of the worst red-zone outfits in the NFL, ranking 31st in the league in red-zone efficiency. They scored just 24 touchdowns on 52 trips inside opponents' 20-yard line.
This year, though, the Ravens are displaying signs of turning around one of the most frustrating aspects of their 2013 season. Halfway through the preseason, the Ravens have scored touchdowns on four of their six red-zone opportunities and are becoming more confident in their ability to shove around opposing defenses in close quarters.
Their methods have included everything from short-yardage runs to quarterback Joe Flacco connecting with wide receiver Torrey Smith on a 19-yard strike for a touchdown last Saturday during a 37-30 preseason victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
"To begin with, I think we have a really good arsenal at our disposal," left guard Kelechi Osemele said. "I feel like we've been physical all camp, so we'll be physical in the red zone. I really feel confident in Joe's arm, and our receivers have really stepped up. So I think, all that combined, we should be better this year."
The Ravens' problems in the red zone last season were among the top reasons they failed to qualify for the postseason, ending a streak of six consecutive years of making the playoffs.
And those troubles — primarily not being able to budge opponents on running plays or come up with creative enough strategies to score on passing plays — were illustrated repeatedly as they were forced to settle for 21 field goals. The Ravens failed to score during seven of their red-zone shots.
The Ravens lost their final two games to the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals, going a combined 2-for-7 in the red zone as they finished 8-8. During the Ravens' final six games, they scored six touchdowns on 21 red-zone attempts. That included going 0-for-3 during an 18-16 win over the Detroit Lions, during which Justin Tucker provided all the points for the Ravens with six field goals.
"It [had] better be [improved] if we're going to win some football games," Flacco said of the red-zone offense. "We have good players. We have a good idea of what we're doing. We just have go out there and execute, and we're doing that right now. So we can expect to go out there in a game and do the exact same. ...
"Overall, [last year] we probably let teams come after us a little bit too much and didn't make the plays when they were presented to us. We're doing a good job getting the ball, getting it where it's supposed to be, winning one-on-one coverage. Those are the key things down there: quick wins and getting the ball out of your hands and just keep going forward."
With the addition of Kubiak, the Ravens are trying to significantly improve the red-zone offense from last season, when they outranked only the Jacksonville Jaguars.
During his eight years as the Texans' head coach, Houston ranked 11th in the NFL in red-zone offense. That included the Texans ranking fourth overall in 2007 and fifth overall in 2010, then slumping to 28th last year as Kubiak was fired in December. Between 2008 and 2012, the Texans were one of two offenses to rank in the top five in total offense, passing offense and rushing offense at least once.
Kubiak frequently uses his tight ends in the red zone, which bodes well for Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta after he was retained with a five-year, $32 million contract in March.
"The biggest thing for me, I want to know we're down there," Kubiak said. "You need to get down there; that's the most important thing. We have to run the ball well in the red zone to be effective. The biggest thing in this league, I tell the players all the time: 'If you have penalties in the red zone, touchdowns turn into field goals with penalties and field goals turn into punts.' So protecting the ball, running the ball and not hurting yourself offensively is the key to being good down there."
The Ravens have made upgrading their red-zone efficiency a priority throughout the offseason and preseason.
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The most direct method of scoring typically is to try to punch it across the goal line, running the football with a straightforward approach.
Kubiak has installed his version of the West Coast offense, which emphasizes a run-first approach based on zone-blocking schemes and play-action passes.
"Exactly — that's what I like about it the most," Osemele said. "As an offensive line, it's good to set the tone early and come off the ball, knock guys off the ball, assert your dominance and, obviously, the play-action off of that and the passes off that. I'm really confident."
Although the offense appears to be on the right track, Smith tapped the brakes rather than proclaim the Ravens have solved the red-zone puzzle that confounded them last year.
"I don't know," Smith said. "You just have to score. It's easy to say you're getting better in practice or even in the preseason, but you have to go out there and make it happen. There's one week you might go perfect, the next week you might need Tucker the whole time. So, you have to go out there and get it done."