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Ravens' Rebuilt Offensive Line Will Be Key For 2014 Season

June 16, 2014

Then one is slogging through hot weather and desert-like conditions, one can often see a mirage.

That's exactly what the Ravens dealt with Oct. 6, 2013, the season's fifth game and one that provided a false image of what their team turned out to be.

Baltimore got a 26-23 win against the Dolphins in Miami's 87-degree heat, and that kept it in the playoff conversation until the season's final week. But the punishing running attack the Ravens displayed that day -- a season-high 36 minutes of possession, with 133 rushing yards and 384 total yards, the team's second-highest output of the year -- was an illusion.

For the rest of the season, a run game beset by injuries and tentative play produced a franchise-record-low total and the NFL's third-lowest total of rushing yards for the 2014 season.

Even worse, the offensive line began to break down, especially on the team's favored left side.

Left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who could often string together a month's worth of above-average play before fading, did not start another game the rest of the year. Left guard Kelechi Osemele's back was starting to hurt, and he started two more games before being placed on season-ending injured reserve with back disk surgery.

Ravens 2013: Ray Rice, Gino Gradkowski
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox

On top of that, first-year starting center Gino Gradkowski had trouble stopping pass rushes coming up the middle, the shortest route to quarterback Joe Flacco, who was sacked a career-high 48 times during the 2013 season. Right tackle Michael Oher started all 16 of the Ravens' games for a fifth straight season, but led the team in penalties.

Right guard Marshal Yanda -- a multiple Pro Bowl pick who cracked the NFL Network's "Top 100" leaguewide players' list for the first time this year, coming in at No. 55 -- soldiered on with his usual tenacity despite having undergone shoulder surgery the previous year.

"We want to be a rough, tough, physical, clean, hard-hitting football team," head coach John Harbaugh said this offseason.

If the Ravens are to return to being that kind of team, three things must happen.

First, the team must be able to buck the NFL trend of using a pass-heavy offense. But in their new West Coast scheme, the Ravens at least seem to have more and deeper weaponry to do that.

Secondly, the offensive line must be versatile and athletic enough to not only embrace a more frequent zone-blocking philosophy, but also switch back to a man-on-man, smash-mouth approach that hearkens back to the days when running back Jamal Lewis gained yards and ate up the clock, especially with the Ravens holding a late-game lead.

Lastly, the line's new additions must learn to play together and at a higher level. In 2013, according to Football Outsiders, the Ravens' line produced a league-low 3.01 adjusted line yards and allowed a league-high 9.6 percent quarterback sack rate.

Though the Houston Texans had a 2-14 record last year, their line ranked sixth overall, according to the Football Outsiders' chart. Former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak is now the Ravens' offensive coordinator, and Juan Castillo is assuming full control of the offensive line coach role.

"There's never been a problem with Juan's coaching style," Osemele said. "It's just a lot of hard work, a lot of reps. He likes to see us do it over and over and over again until we're not thinking about it. That's just how we do it -- we grind. Everybody's standing around towards the beginning of practice when we're driving guys off the ball."

Harbaugh appeared to have a bigger-picture approach, focusing on how Kubiak is going to conduct the entire orchestra.

"He's a heck of a coach," Harbaugh said of Kubiak. "The biggest thing that I'm impressed with, among many things, is how well built the offense is. The offense is really well organized. It's built in such a way that it can be executed with speed and with confidence.

"That's the goal, but yet [you need to] have the answers. You need to compete against the defenses that you're going to play against."

Seven of the Ravens' 16 games in 2014 will come against teams that fielded top 10 defenses in 2013. If Baltimore is to capitalize on what appears to be an overall easier schedule, conquering such units will be key.

Who will be those charged with winning the trench battles that will give the defense -- which ranked 12th last year, four slots higher than the Super Bowl-winning unit did the previous season -- enough of a rest to take over games if need be? 

Here's how the line seems to be taking shape before training camp.


Former Jacksonville Jaguars veteran Eugene Monroe, who the Ravens acquired as part of the first in-season trade in team history, did not make a good first impression, allowing a sack against Green Bay that helped lead to a critical field goal late during the first half.

But after that, Monroe played at an above-average level, one that helped the Ravens decide to reward their cornerstone with a new multi-year contract.

Though the 6-foot-5, 306-pound Monroe surely wants to play well, he seems more focused on relishing the new winning atmosphere in which he finds himself.

"I haven't really sensed any [negative] issues in terms of [camaraderie]," Monroe said in early June. "I think everyone is getting along. Everyone is working together, and everyone is having fun coming here every day."

Although Monroe doesn't quite combine the top-level skill set displayed by Hall of Fame predecessor Jonathan Ogden, his size, footwork and athleticism are viewed to be good enough to hold down a vital part of the field.

"With Eugene, he's really athletic," Osemele said. "[There are] not a lot of times where I have to come off my guy on a slide to go in and help Eugene. Obviously, that's going to make us more stout in the middle, because he's so athletic that he can kind of be on an island. Working with him, it should really shore up our protection."


Not only did the 6-foot-5, 330-pound Osemele state how well his partnership with Monroe was working, but so did Harbaugh, whose decisiveness has already come into play.

Harbaugh seems to be veering away from a speculated move that would have shifted the powerful Osemele -- blessed with a wide base, athleticism and a strong punch -- to right tackle, a position he has played in the past.

"We just don't know how it's going to play out," Harbaugh said. "[Osemele] gives us flexibility because he can move out to tackle, but I sure like the way he and Eugene look over on that left side. That's the direction we're heading right now, and hopefully we can maintain that course."

As good as Osemele has been at such a young age, and as much as he's already valued, his back surgery has left him somewhat limited for now.

"[I] can't do elliptic lifts, power cleaning, anything over the head, vertical compression, squats and stuff like that," Osemele said. "I have to switch up the routine in the weight room. A lot of core stuff, stability and flexibility -- extra stuff on my own time to make sure that I'm healthy."


Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers center Jeremy Zuttah, who the Ravens acquired as part of an offseason trade, will become the name listed last alphabetically on the team's all-time roster, replacing Emmett Zitelli.

Issue 198: Ravens 2014: Jeremy Zuttah (OTA)
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox

Zitelli was a center who played collegiately in Florida and didn't solve the team's late-1990s hole at the position. But once draftee Jeff Mitchell, another former Florida player, assumed the starting job, the Ravens were on their way to their first Super Bowl championship.

Zuttah was caught in the unfortunate situation of working with young quarterbacks and neophyte head coaches (Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano) who didn't seem to know how to handle the job's spotlight.

But one thing Zuttah has that Gradkowski doesn't is six years of NFL experience behind him, as well as a stint blocking for Ravens running back Ray Rice when they went to Rutgers University.

Monroe has also witnessed Zuttah's prowess firsthand.

"I've known [Jeremy] for a while, dating back to high school," Monroe said. "I've seen him on film, crossing and playing the same teams, and he's popping up on film in Tampa. 

"He's a good player. He's taking command of what we're doing on the O-line and doing his best to give us the direction that he has to. And he's going to grind; he's going to work. So, I'm glad to have him."


During the three-minute piece that heralded Yanda's first selection to the NFL Network's "Top 100" list, there was a clip of him hoisting wide receiver Torrey Smith on his shoulders.

The narrator said, "Yanda can help carry his team if necessary."

After he was a mid-round draftee in 2007, Yanda was part of a league-record three rookies on that year's Ravens offensive line. It became evident that the bearded, no-frills Yanda, who played collegiately at Iowa, would be a keeper.

In 2011, Yanda and Ben Grubbs simultaneously became the first guards in team history to be named to the Pro Bowl. Yanda has played with a still-recovering shoulder; he has appeared in all but 13 regular-season games since he became a Raven.

And when Yanda takes the field during Week One against Cincinnati, he will become one of a handful of Ravens in team history to have appeared in 100 games.

It would be no surprise if Yanda evaluates his performance that day the way he's graded himself after the other 99 contests.

"It's a combination of speed and power, quickness, the ability to stop bull rushes," Yanda said.


Just as Yanda earned a quick graduation from young draftee to starting stalwart, Rick Wagner and Ryan Jensen are trying to do the same.

The two were taken 35 spots apart during the 2013 draft. Wagner was a fifth-round pick from Wisconsin who has played exclusively on the outside of the line (mostly at left tackle), and Jensen, who came out of Colorado State-Pueblo, was initially seen as a guard/center hybrid that could provide interior depth.

After Oher suffered an ankle injury, Wagner did get some valuable field time during a Week One blowout loss at Denver in 2013. But the Broncos had already held a lead, and their pass rushes seemed to overwhelm Wagner.

Wagner is also a part of the team's "jumbo" package as an extra tight end, as the Ravens endeavor to have as many options as they can.

As for Jensen, he was told to bulk up and move outside, where he has already taken repetitions at right tackle during organized team activities. He has attacked his new role with alacrity.

"He looks good," Harbaugh said of Jensen. "He was out there in a few scuffles. ... He's got good feet; he's tough. He plays a little bigger than 6-[foot]-3 and a half or whatever it is. You've seen guys that size play in this offense plenty of times before, so I think it's going to be a heck of a battle."

If it produces the final piece of a rejuvenated line, it will be no mirage.

Issue 198: June 2014