Lack of hits leaves `O' line punchless

ON THE RAVENS

August 30, 2007

The Ravens' problems on the offensive line can be traced to training camp, when they didn't complete the most basic concept: They didn't hit enough.

Coach Brian Billick's training camps have always been light on hitting, and this past one was no exception. Billick likes the light hitting because it cuts down on possible injuries and saves wear on the players later in the season, but the young players on the offensive line shouldn't have enjoyed the same privileges as some of the more accomplished veterans.

This offensive line should have hit more. Billick and offensive line coach Chris Foerster should have put the players through the grinder and let them have more of a taste of game-day reality.

Some of them are just starting to get a clue. This offensive line has been in the training camp mode of slow. The New York Giants and Washington Redskins moved at game speed. The Ravens are still walking through plays. Can't you tell? The communication isn't there yet, which is why guards are getting pushed into running backs and tight ends are bumping into offensive tackles.

For some of these guys, these past two preseason games must seem like a blur. And maybe that's why the Ravens keep getting hit with illegal procedure penalties. They're trying to get a jump on the snap of the ball because they aren't used to the speed of the game. They certainly haven't seen much of it in practice because mostly everything is at three-quarters speed.

"I've only been at one other place before, and we prepared them the same way for the season," said Foerster, who held the same title with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

That's fine, but situations change. You take it easy with a group loaded with fifth- and sixth-year veterans, but not with a bunch of baby faces.

Starting right tackle Adam Terry, in his third year, has started only two regular-season games. Third-year left guard Jason Brown has started 13, and second-year right guard Chris Chester has started four. Left tackle Jared Gaither is a rookie.

They needed to smack heads in training camp. Receivers, defensive backs and even linebackers can get away with light contact because they're always running at full speed, so they're getting their timing down.

It's different with linemen, especially on the offensive side. They need to hit, they need to develop that tough mental attitude in training camp that carries over into the regular season.

They need to work on things such as pad level and dropping their shoulders. It's one thing to have a Terrell Suggs come across the line in a walkthrough in practice and another to have it be Julius Peppers in a game. Veterans know better. The younger players don't.

The expectations are high for this team, and we understand Billick's approach. But he could have done things differently without abandoning his Camp Cream Puff philosophy and not tiring out veterans such as Ray Lewis, Samari Rolle and Trevor Pryce.

A lot of NFL teams are treating training camp the same way as Billick. But some coaches have certain groups involved in more contact drills. That's what the Ravens should have done to get some of these linemen more repetitions to work on timing and get them acclimated to the speed of the game.

The Ravens' offensive line was successful against the Philadelphia Eagles in the preseason opener, but the Eagles aren't that good up front. The Giants and Redskins were different. They played at a higher and faster level than the Eagles and Ravens.

Injuries are always a concern in the preseason, but that's also part of the game. And aren't you supposed to build depth through the draft?

This is a very promising group. Gaither has good size and movement. Brown is steady and getting better. Chester, with possibly the quickest feet on the team, will eventually replace Mike Flynn at center, and Ben Grubbs, the team's top draft pick in April, will eventually become the starting right guard. If Terry gets tougher, he'll stay at right tackle, but he can also play left tackle. The Ravens have rookie Marshal Yanda coming off the bench, and he could become a swing lineman at guard and tackle. And, of course, injured Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden could be making his return at any time.

But the key for this season will be how quickly the offensive line comes together. Quarterback Steve McNair is injury prone, and running back Willis McGahee is new to the offense. If the Ravens struggle in the first half of the season, they might not be able to catch up in the second.

The future needs to arrive quickly for the offensive line, but it suffered a setback with the light contact in training camp.

"We got some big guys, we got some athletic guys, young ones and veterans," Foerster said. "Everybody is working hard, and if we stay relatively healthy, I think we'll be OK. It's a tough question asking about when this group will come together. Every year is different. You can have a group where all five are veteran players, and you don't know when they're going to hit stride.

"Every team is different. Every group has their own chemistry. I couldn't tell you if it will come together in five games, six games or seven games. But we're still in the preseason, and we still have a lot of work to do."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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