Not yet in step


Revamped offensive line hasn't hit its stride

Front and center

July 29, 2008

Ravens left offensive tackle Adam Terry is engaged with outside linebacker Jarret Johnson when Johnson does a spin move and leaves Terry a step or two behind. Terry had been in good position, but an injured left ankle wouldn't allow him to push off.

As Johnson goes on to record what would have been a sack in game conditions, Terry grimaces in pain and limps away from the huddle.

Terry's injury is symbolic of what is going on with the offensive line these days. The group is having growing pains, mentally and physically. The process is slowing the development of the offense, but the key is patience.

Everybody has to be patient, from coach John Harbaugh to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to the players. The Ravens were in an unusual position at the start of training camp. Few, if any, NFL teams begin a season without having at least one offensive lineman starting at the same position from the previous year.

But the Ravens are in that situation this season, and it shows. At times, this offensive line just doesn't know where it's going. The problem is compounded because the Ravens are going against their defense, and that group loves to cause confusion with a lot of blitzes.

At other times, the Ravens have been just plain soft, getting outhit and outplayed by a physically stronger defensive line. And the offensive line, especially at tackle, has been hit by injuries.

Second-year player Jared Gaither (Maryland) started training camp at left tackle but might be out for another week with a sprained ankle. When Gaither went down, Terry, a fourth-year player, was moved from starting right tackle to the left side, and Mike Kracalik took Terry's position.

Terry started camp strong, but it's clear the ankle injury he suffered last season isn't 100 percent healed. Kracalik spent most of last season on the practice squad and has played like it.

The substitutions and injuries have created some interesting moments. There was supposed to be an open competition for the starting quarterback job, but it's difficult to get a fair evaluation because the pass protection has been poor. Sometimes Kyle Boller, Troy Smith and Joe Flacco aren't even getting enough time to carry out play-action fakes.

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has been scanning the wires looking for tackles, but it's hard to find one when a lot of teams just started camp.

The Ravens should be fine up the middle, despite having two starting guards who are in only their second seasons. Center Jason Brown has three years of playing experience and has Pro Bowl potential. Left guard Ben Grubbs has gotten bigger and is strong at the point of attack. Right guard Marshal Yanda is a tough run blocker, as well, and extremely physical. All three run well and can make blocks into the second level.

The key for this group right now is just playing together and getting its timing down. There is talent on the inside, but the verdict is still out on Gaither, Terry, Kracalik and rookie tackles Oniel Cousins and Joe Reitz.

Adding an established, veteran tackle would help the Ravens now, but not in the future. This is an offense in search of an identity.

There are some signs that point to success. This group is young and athletic. The Ravens have one of the game's best offensive line coaches in John Matsko, who has a strong resume after stops in Kansas City, St. Louis, with the New York Giants and New Orleans.

But it will be interesting to see how Cameron runs this offense. He likes a fast-paced offense and isn't afraid to gamble. He was brought in to build a high-octane offense for a team that was conservative during the previous nine seasons.

As much as some things change, others remain the same. It appears the Ravens will have to rely on a strong running game if they are to be successful and use a lot of two-tight-end formations. Because of the unstable quarterback situation and the team's inability to control the pass rush, the Ravens will have to use a lot of three-step-drop passes and keep in tight ends and running backs to help pass-block.

The Ravens' defense is still dominant, so if they are to win, they will have to win their share of 13-10 or 14-10 games.

We won't know anything until five or six games into the season. Harbaugh has already taken some criticism for hitting so much in practice, which has resulted in several injuries. But he has had no other choice. With so much youth on offense, he has had to get this team game-ready as fast as possible.

Odds are the Ravens don't have their tackles of the future on the roster, but team officials won't know unless the current tackles play.

So unless Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden comes out of retirement, all the Ravens can do is wait - and show some patience.

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