Coming up short on offensive line Ravens: What had been anticipated as the strength of the offense has turned into the unit's biggest disappointment.

October 23, 1998|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

The Ravens have invested nearly $9 million in salaries for their offensive line this season, but the payoff so far has only been average at best.

After six games, the Ravens (2-4) are averaging 104.7 rushing yards a game, ranked No. 19, and have the worst red-zone efficiency in the NFL, with two touchdowns out of 12 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line. The Ravens have recorded 22 sacks, but allowed 16, seven of them against the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday in a 16-6 loss. And maybe worst of all, this team hasn't scored a touchdown in 10 quarters.

There are numerous problems, from inconsistent schemes to injured and inexperienced running backs and quarterbacks, as well as conservative play-calling in the red zone. But most of the public finger-pointing is at an offensive line that was supposed to the strongest point of the offense.

Here's the bottom line: Only two members of the group have played consistently well enough for the Ravens to win this season -- left tackle Jonathan Ogden and right guard Jeff Blackshear. Left guard Wally Williams has come on strong in the past three games after a slow start because of a contract dispute that forced him to miss a month of training camp. Center Jeff Mitchell is still learning, and right tackle Orlando Brown is in a funk.

"When you go out and don't score touchdowns, it goes with the territory, whether it's from your teammates, media, fans or coaches," said Williams of the criticism. "We understand the challenges that are in front of us right now. We're working together to get it going and eventually get this team rolling and the breaks going our way.

"I don't critique other players, but I do know we go out and try to do the best that we can," he said. "Obviously, there are things we need to do to get better. Maybe the biggest thing is to pay more attention to detail, maintain our pass protection longer and do a better job at backside blocking."

Rock steady or shaky?

The Ravens should be further along. With the exception of second-year center Mitchell, they have been together for nearly three years. Though the team was starting an entirely new backfield in the beginning of the year in quarterback Jim Harbaugh, running back Errict Rhett and fullback Roosevelt Potts, the offensive line was supposed to be rock steady while the rest of the offense caught up.

Three years ago, former Ravens center Steve Everitt said the Ravens' offensive line was as good as the Dallas Cowboys', with tackles Mark Tuinei and Erik Williams, guards Nate Newton and Larry Allen and center Ray Donaldson.

Those Cowboys have Super Bowl rings. The Ravens, with one of the biggest offensive lines in the league, couldn't gain a yard on three straight plays against the Oilers two weeks ago.

Rock steady has turned into shaky ground.

"They have been a little up and down, but I can't say our inability to score lately is the total fault of the offensive line," said Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda. "Their best game was against Cincinnati, and we want more consistent efforts like that one.

"I think we expected more from everybody going into the season," said Marchibroda in reference to the entire offense. Then he adds: "But I think us starting a rookie center and Wally missing all of training camp has to be worked into the equation."

Up-and-down season

Mitchell's season has been full of ups and downs, and that's to be expected, because he was forced into the starting lineup during Williams' holdout. This is his first season as a starter, and Mitchell, because of injuries, hasn't played a full season since his junior year at Florida. But the long-range prognosis is that Mitchell will develop into a quality center.

Williams said he played poorly in the first three games. Several times, he drew illegal procedure penalties that were extremely costly. But Marchibroda agrees that Williams has played well lately and reached a level of stability.

"I started out slow. I didn't play at the level I wanted to play at in the first two or three games," said Williams. "In those first three games, I had about four penalties, mostly mental errors. As the franchise player, you can't go out and make mistakes like a rookie."

The fallout from Williams' holdout might be felt through right tackle Brown, one of the team's hardest workers during the off-season. A year ago, he was considered one of the most underrated tackles in the league. He has struggled this season with an ankle injury, but there is speculation that the front office's decision not to extend Williams a long-term contract has bothered him, too.

Off-field distractions

Williams and Brown are close friends. They came into the league as free-agent long shots from predominantly black Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference schools, and neither has had the big signing bonus or long-term contract of an established player.

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