Offensive line leads way to New Orleans

Without this unit's improved play, Ravens would have struggled on offense

January 21, 2013|MIKE PRESTON

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — — When historians look back on the Ravens' 2012 season, they will remember offensive coordinator Cam Cameron being fired and replaced by Jim Caldwell.

They will talk about quarterback Joe Flacco's clutch performances in the postseason and how star linebacker Ray Lewis's decision to retire inspired this team.

But the best move came two weeks ago when Ravens coach John Harbaugh inserted Bryant McKinnie at left offensive tackle, moved Michael Oher to right tackle and rookie Kelechi Osemele to left guard.

That's when the Ravens became championship caliber.

There are always new schemes and philosophies in football, but there is one constant: If your front five can beat the other team's defensive front seven, you win games.

On Sunday night, the Ravens' starting group of McKinnie, Oher, guard Marshal Yanda, Osemele and center Matt Birk were outstanding.

The Ravens had 356 yards of total offense and held a three-minute advantage in time of possession. They were hurt by poor field position in the first half, but once they opened it up in the second they were nearly unstoppable.

Flacco was 11 of 18 in the third quarter. He finished the game with 240 yards and three touchdown passes. Receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta kept coming up with clutch catches as the Ravens took control of the tempo and the game.

"We just executed better," Birk said. "In the first half we had a hard time on offense sustaining anything and getting our rhythm, other than the one drive. We changed thinks up a little bit in the second half. We got a little up-temp and got some rhythm and guys started making plays. We just tried to block guys and your our playmakers a chance to make plays."

But they wouldn't have been productive without this offensive line. For most of the night, Flacco had time to eat a doughnut, drink a cup of coffee and then go through his progressions.

In three postseason games, Flacco has been sacked four times, which is remarkable because he got banged around so much during the regular season.

It's somewhat ironic that this unit has carried the team because Harbaugh was reluctant to change. Going into training camp, the offensive line was the biggest question mark and there were even more doubt when McKinnie reported late, out of shape and overweight.

And then the Ravens cut his salary.

It was enough to make a big, old man cry, or at least sulk enough where he practiced poorly, according to Harbaugh (wink, wink). The Ravens tried several different combinations including Oher at left tackle and Ramon Harewood and Jah Reid at left guard.

Nothing worked.

Neither Osemele, at right tackle, or Oher on the left side could handle speed rushers. Privately, certain veteran players wanted McKinnie back as the starter and there was even speculation that general manager Ozzie Newsome strongly lobbied for McKinnie with Harbaugh.

Finally, the move was made for the wild card playoff game against Indianapolis, and the Ravens have been a different team.

They've always had weapons, but now they have time to find and use them. Because of their physical style, the Ravens can play smashmouth football with running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, and control the time of possession to keep their defense off the field.

Flacco has an assortment of weapons in Smith, Pitta, Boldin and Jacoby Jones. If the protection is good, few defenses have the skill or speed to compete with this group.

The Patriots had just five quarterback hurries Sunday night. They had two sacks and one of those came late in the game after the outcome had already been decided.

Vince Wilfork, New England's giant defensive tackle who has been one major problem for the Ravens the past two years, had only one tackle. He got bounced around by the middle of the Ravens' offensive line.

McKinnie won't remind anyone of former Ravens great Jonathan Ogden, but he can still swallow up most good pass rushers. Birk's best days are behind him, but he can still make blocks into the second level especially against a four-man front and has been a steady presence for Osemele.

Oher was never going to be a quality left tackle, but seems to have found a home on the right side. Osemele is going to be a great player and is versatile and strong enough to play any of the positions on the offense line.

As for Yanda, he is the best of the group, a throwback to the old days when linemen didn't say much, but you were always glad they were on your team.

It's an offensive line that seemed to lose its way at the beginning of the season, but has rediscovered itself just in time to lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl in New Orleans.

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