Ravens' offensive line headed in wrong direction

December 14, 2010|Mike Preston

The Ravens will go as deep into the postseason as their offensive line takes them, and right now that doesn't appear to be very far.

There are three games remaining in the regular season, so there is time to improve, but warning signs point to this group not getting much better. In the past three games, offensive line play has gotten worse.

The Ravens have given up 22 sacks in the past six games, 13 in the past three. Against the Houston Texans on Monday night, the Ravens allowed five against one of the worst defensive teams in the NFL. Quarterback Joe Flacco was hit nine times.

"Execution, it's just execution," Ravens center Matt Birk said. "Offense is one of those things. If it's an eight-man protection, all eight guys have to get their blocks. If one doesn't, it doesn't do any good. Offense is everybody executing at the same time. We're just not quite there"

They may never get there. The Ravens tried to reinvent themselves Monday night by trying to play smash-mouth football against the Texans.

They moved Oniel Cousins to right tackle and Marshal Yanda from tackle to right guard. They inserted Chris Chester, the former starting right guard, at tight end in an effort to add muscle to the running game. The Ravens averaged 2.6 yards on 24 carries.

Some muscle, huh?

Another sign of where the Ravens might be heading is the pass protection. The Ravens went with maximum protection, which means they often kept in a tight end or running back to keep Flacco upright. That didn't work either. Even worse, this move hurts the passing game because the Ravens often sent out only two receivers.

The offense appears to have regressed. Two years ago, the Ravens protected Flacco, then a rookie, with a strong running game and eight-man protection. The strategy was basically the same a year ago, but that was supposed to change this season with the development of tackles Jared Gaither and Michael Oher.

But Gaither, the starting left tackle, went on injured reserve after suffering a back injury early in training camp. Oher, a first-round draft pick in 2009, was moved to the left side, which forced the Ravens to move Yanda from guard to tackle. Yanda has been solid on the right side, but Oher has struggled.

Oher committed three penalties in a 13-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec.5 and gave up one sack Monday and got called for a false start, his seventh of the season. If the Ravens had ample depth they could make changes, but starting Cousins shows they are desperate.

"There were some spread issues," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of the Houston game.

"We probably got beat one-on-one a couple times. That's a concern. We've talked about the pass protection before, and it goes for everybody. It's the offensive line, it's the tight ends, it's the running backs, it's the receivers and it's the quarterback. Whatever we need to do to get that cleared up we have to do, and we're capable of doing that."

The season is 14 weeks old, and we're still waiting.

The offensive line play will get a needed boost once Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap returns from a hamstring injury. With Oher, it's a confidence issue. Ideally, he is a prototypical right tackle, more of a mauler than a finesse player, which is needed on the left side.

But the real problem is that the Ravens have lost their identity. This is basically the same group that helped produce one of the NFL's best running attacks two years ago. Back then, though, the Ravens came into the season wanting to knock the opposition off the ball. This season, they're an offense with no identity.

The position switches have caused some problems, but it shouldn't be as significant as what we've seen in the past couple of weeks. After all, the Ravens have two first-round picks on the line in Oher and left guard Ben Grubbs. Yanda is a third-round pick, and Birk was a costly free-agent addition two years ago.

In the past two weeks, we've seen an offensive line that can't protect the quarterback. There is no running game, so the defense stays on the field too long, especially in the second half. And the Ravens' passing game is shrinking because it has to max-protect for Flacco.

It's not the direction a team wants to go during December. And there are no indications it's about to change.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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