Ravens' O-line will be tested by Raiders

Oakland's defensive line one of the NFL's top-ranked units

December 31, 2009|By Edward Lee | edward.lee@baltsun.com

Matt Birk, usually one of the more accommodating Ravens players with the media, was in a bit of a hurry Wednesday. "I have to go watch film," the center said half-apologetically.

Birk still answered several questions, but his request for brevity was well-warranted as the offensive line prepares for its matchup Sunday against the Oakland Raiders' underrated defensive line.

Oakland's defensive front has accounted for 26 of the team's 33 sacks this season. The sack total ranks fifth among the NFL's defensive lines, behind the Philadelphia Eagles (36 sacks), the Minnesota Vikings (35 1/2 ), the Indianapolis Colts (30 1/2 ) and the New Orleans Saints (27 1/2 ).

The sack numbers are surprising considering that the Raiders' defense ranks in the bottom third of the league in categories such as average yards per game (27th), average rushing yards per game (29th) and points per game (tied for 23rd). But Ravens offensive line coach John Matsko wasn't buying into rankings.

"I think this is a really challenging defense," he said. "These guys run and they hit, and it's going to be a challenge to run and to pass. It's a [darn] good football team. It doesn't matter what the rankings are. Believe me, that doesn't matter."

Lately, Oakland's pass defense has been one of the stronger units in the league, and some of that success is rooted in the play of the defensive line.

The organization added former Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Ellis (a team-leading seven sacks this season) and selected end Matt Shaughnessy (four sacks) in the third round of this year's draft.

Defensive end Trevor Scott, a sixth-round choice in the 2008 draft, ranks second on the team with six sacks, and the acquisition of former New England Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour (four sacks) has given the defense another weapon.

"It's a good group," Raiders coach Tom Cable said during a conference call with Baltimore media Wednesday. "We've got Richard Seymour and Greg Ellis and Matt Shaughnessy at the end spot and then inside with Gerard Warren and Tommy Kelly and Desmond Bryant. And they kind of offset each other and compliment each other in different ways."

Oakland's pass defense ranks a modest 15th in the NFL, and while the defensive front has aided that ranking, a secondary led by two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha has been just as important.

"I think it works hand-in-hand," Seymour said. "If we get pressure on the quarterback, it makes their jobs easier. And if they can get up in the faces of the receivers and jam them and throw them off their routes, it definitely helps us. We've been working hand-in-hand all year."

A consistent pass rush from the defensive line gives the Raiders more options in coverage. The defense can drop linebackers into coverage or blitz their linebackers for free shots at opposing quarterbacks.

The strategy is reminiscent of the New York Giants' tactic against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII almost two years ago. The Giants were able to harass Tom Brady with their defensive front and ground the Patriots' high-flying offense by flooding the secondary with linebackers and nickel backs.

"That's key," Birk said. "That's extra guys in coverage and linebackers clogging up the middle. When you can get pressure with four, you can do a lot of good things on defense."

Right guard Marshal Yanda said Oakland can also use the linebackers as decoys, lining them up as if they are rushing, but then dropping them back into coverage.

"They throw some stuff at you to try to confuse you and get you to I.D. the wrong guy," Yanda said. "So yeah, they try to do that to create some confusion, and all defenses have a little wrinkle in there like that to do that. We'll watch them on film and we'll be ready to go."

The challenge for the Ravens' offensive line is filling the holes created by the unit's play in last Sunday's 23-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley victimized right tackle Oniel Cousins. Cousins and rookie tackle Michael Oher struggled at times with Pittsburgh's speed rush from the edges.

In the Ravens' eight wins, quarterback Joe Flacco has been sacked 14 times. In the seven losses, he has been taken down 18 times.

"We just have to execute better," left guard Ben Grubbs said. "When you watch the film, there's no special remedy to our problems. Literally, it's sometimes about taking the right step or using our hands better. It could've been a different game. So we just have to focus on the little things, which could lead to big things."

The unit could get a boost if Jared Gaither (lower back stiffness/foot /toe), who fully participated in practice Wednesday, returns after a three-game absence. Still, Yanda said the onus lies on the players.

"We've just got to block them. That's as simple as it is," he said. "You try to watch them on film and stuff like that and find out as much as you can about the guy and what he does and what he likes to do and stuff. But when it comes down to it on Sunday, you've got to block them up and protect Joe at all costs."

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