Depth is a concern for the Ravens offensive line

Team has a strong starting five, but its backed up by a number of question marks

August 26, 2013|Mike Preston

It is not the beginning of the football season unless there are questions about the Ravens offensive line.

Unlike previous years, there is talent, so few wonder how good this unit can be. The big concern is about depth, or lack of it. If the Ravens can make it through the season without serious injuries, they might have one of the best lines in the AFC.

If not, barring a late acquisition, they are in trouble.

That was clearly evident Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers. It was the first time the starting group was intact during the preseason, and the Ravens opened the game with a nine-play, 69-yard scoring drive.

When the Ravens removed right guard Marshal Yanda a few minutes later, the Ravens played poorly. Most NFL teams far apart when they lose a star receiver, running back or quarterback — not a guard.

That was telling.

"I think our depth is coming along," Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "I think we have some younger guys that are certainly getting better, obviously with our older guys who are hanging in there and doing a pretty nice job. But you are always trying to improve in every single facet. But it takes a lot of work, and I think our guys are making a lot of progress."

The concern for the lack of depth grew even greater over the weekend when the Ravens cut fourth-year guard Ramon Harewood, who started five games for them last year.

Harewood won't remind anyone of John Hannah or Gene Upshaw, but he did have experience and was "serviceable," the NFL buzz word meaning average. But once you get past the Ravens' current starting five, there aren't many serviceable replacements.

Backup guard Jah Reid can help a team win some games, but he could also cause them to lose others. When he came in for Yanda on Thursday, the drop off at the position and on offense was clearly noticeable.

Unfortunately for the Ravens, at this time, Reid is the best of the reserves. The next men up at guard or tackle are Rick Wagner and J.J. Unga, both rookies. Wagner, a fifth-round pick from Wisconsin, has shown potential, but not enough to become a solid stop gap player at this point. Unga was a free-agent out of Midwestern State. Backup center A.Q. Shipley started five games for the Indianapolis Colts last season, but he didn't play well as a starter against the Atlanta Falcons in the Ravens' second preseason game.

The Ravens will point out that they have some flexibility because Yanda and starting left guard Kelechi Osemele have both played tackle, and right tackle Michael Oher can play on either side. But in this situation, any starter that goes down with an injury will amount to a significant loss.

The lack of depth is the only drawback to an offensive line that could be dominant. Starting left tackle Bryant McKinnie, despite a weight problem, had a good training camp, the best of his three years in Baltimore.

Oher is unspectacular but solid, even though he still might need a calculator to stop from jumping offsides, and the Ravens have one of the best tandems of guards in the league in Osemele and Yanda. They can hide second-year center Gino Gradkowski, considered the weak link of the unit.

The Ravens struggled against the Panthers on Thursday night, but things can be worked out, even Carolina crashing hard into the gaps between the guards and center.

"Those things shouldn't happen to us," said Caldwell. "Obviously, we were very inconsistent. The first drive of the game we moved the ball extremely well. We had no problems with leakage, not in pass protection or run game. Then we started to sputter and sputtered until the second half until we came out and got those two good drives. The things we saw inside were correctable, basic things where we have to do better technique-wise and scheme-wise."

Almost everything else seems to be in place on offense. The Ravens have great speed on the outside in receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones, a proven winning quarterback in Joe Flacco and two quality running backs in Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce operating behind Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach.

They have two possible go-to-guys in tight end Dallas Clark and slot receiver Brandon Stokley, even though there is concern if those two, because of their age, can remain healthy for an entire season.

It is just like wondering if the Ravens have enough depth on the offensive line. If they are lucky, they won't have to find an answer to that question.

If they aren't, the Ravens could have a long season.

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