Ro­tat­ing O-line root of prob­lems

In­juries make it dif­fi­cult to de­velop con­ti­nu­ity in run block­ing, pass pro­tec­tion

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Edward Lee

The Ravens’ trou­bles on of­fense are many, and the po­ten­tial reme­dies are var­ied. As far as quar­ter­back Joe Flacco is con­cerned, a healthy and ef­fec­tive of­fen­sive line is one of the high­est pri­or­i­ties.

“Build­ing a good team al­ways starts up front,” he said Wed­nes­day. “It starts with those guys. We’re go­ing to try and over­come any­thing we can, but those guys are a huge part of our suc­cess. Hav­ing ev­ery­body be healthy goes into that. Ob­vi­ously, ev­ery­body deals with things here and there … but it will def­i­nitely be a big part of it.”

Health and ef­fec­tive­ness have been fleet­ing this sea­son for the of­fen­sive line. The Ravens rank 26th in the NFL in rush­ing yards per game. When it comes to pass pro­tec­tion, Flacco has been sacked 15 times, tied for 10th most among quar­ter­backs.

The of­fen­sive line’s strug­gles have con­trib­uted to the team’s four-game los­ing streak and made the up­com­ing bye week any­thing but re­lax­ing.

“The bot­tom line here is we would be happy if we’re 7-0, and we’re not,” of­fen­sive line coach Juan Castillo said. “So we’re all try­ing to work hard to get bet­ter. That’s our thing, and the good thing is

when you work hard, good things hap­pen as long as you’re do­ing the right things.”

Castillo, when speak­ing to the me­dia this week, didn’t ex­press any sign of panic. When dis­cussing what his unit needs to im­prove, he ref­er­enced var­i­ous tech­ni­cal as­pects of the trade.

The of­fen­sive line thrived in 2014, paving the way­for­run­ning­back­Justin Forsett to rush for 1,266 yards, a 5.4-yard av­er­age, and eight touch­downs. And the line en­abled Flacco to throw for a ca­reer-best 3,986 yards and 27 scores, and get sacked a ca­reer-low 19 times in a 16-game sea­son.

But the unit has strug­gled this sea­son and last.

The free-agent de­par­ture of left guard Kelechi Osemele to the Oakland Raiders in the off­sea­son so­lid­i­fied con­cerns about the unit, and the or­ga­ni­za­tion se­lected Ron­nie Stan­ley in the first round and Alex Lewis in the fourth of the draft to ad­dress a glaring need. With Stan­ley seem­ingly the left tackle of the present and fu­ture, the Ravens re­leased oft-in­jured Eu­gene Mon­roe.

Stan­ley and Lewis started the first three games on the left side of the line. That duo com­bined with cen­ter Jeremy Zut­tah, right guard Mar­shal Yanda and right tackle Rick Wag­ner, and helped the Ravens start the sea­son 3-0.

But in­juries forced both rook­ies to sit out an even­tual 28-27 loss to the Oakland Raiders on Oct. 2, and the of­fen­sive line has been in flux ever since. Lewis has started the past three games at left tackle be­cause of a foot in­jury to Stan­ley, and John Urschel has re­placed Lewis at left guard.

Ryan Jensen has started the past two games at right guard for Yanda (left shoul­der), and Wag­ner re­turned from a one-game ab­sence, the re­sult of a thigh in­jury, to re­place James Hurst.

The carousel of play­ers on the of­fen­sive line has made it dif­fi­cult for the unit to de­velop con­ti­nu­ity, but of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Marty Morn­hin­weg said that ex­cuse doesn’t fly with the play­ers or coaches.

“If a man goes down, the next man comes in and we ex­pect him to play as good or even bet­ter some­times,” he said. “That’s our men­tal­ity.”

For­mer Ravens of­fen­sive line­man Wally Wil­liams ac­knowl­edged the dif­fi­culty of cul­ti­vat­ing con­sis­tency from an of­fen­sive line whose per­son­nel changes al­most weekly. But he also ques­tioned whether the cur­rent group is built to plow op­po­nents out of the way to open run­ning lanes and cited as ev­i­dence the 11-at­tempt, 11-yard show­ing in Sun­day’s 24-16 loss to the New York Jets.

“It def­i­nitely showed up this week­end with how phys­i­cal the Jets were up front,” said Wil­liams, who runs an of­fen­sive line per­for­mance school for high school, col­lege and NFL line­men in Ari­zona. “Be­fore [run­ning back] Ter­rance West even got the ball, you had Jets in the back­field. You just can’t have that kind of pen­e­tra­tion up front when you have three down line­men that are re­ally wreck­ing your en­tire run game.”

Wag­ner con­ceded that the of­fense must im­prove its abil­ity to move the ball on the ground be­cause that would set up play-ac­tion passes for Flacco and the re­ceivers.

“We’ve got to get the ball run­ning suc­cess­fully in the first and sec­ond quar­ters,” Wag­ner said. “That’s our big­gest thing. We’ve got to prove to the coaches and ev­ery­body that we can get the ball rolling early and con­tinue that in the sec­ond half.”

With­out a pro­duc­tive rush­ing at­tack, the Ravens have had to rely on Flacco’s arm, which has al­lowed op­pos­ing de­fenses to fo­cus on ap­ply­ing pres­sure. Flacco has been hit 45 times and is on pace to be hit 102 times, which would be a ca­reer high.

“We can al­ways keep Joe cleaner,” Lewis said. “The per­fect day in our world is when Joe never gets touched. Not even breathed on. He got sacked twice and he got pres­sured a bunch of times, and when he was clean, the pocket was sort of tight. So when you watch tape like that, you’re say­ing, ‘OK, how are we go­ing to clean it up? What are we go­ing to do bet­ter? What are we go­ing to change? Let’s at­tack it in prac­tice and get bet­ter ev­ery day.’ ”

All is not bleak. Yanda and Stan­ley prac­ticed Tues­day and Wed­nes­day, and coach John Har­baugh said he an­tic­i­pates that Yanda, a five-time Pro Bowl se­lec­tion, will be­gin par­tic­i­pat­ing fully next week in prepa­ra­tion for a Nov. 6 show­down with the AFC North-lead­ing Pitts­burgh Steel­ers.

The im­pend­ing re­turn of the front five that started the sea­son could be a sig­nif­i­cant re­lief for the Ravens. But Zut­tah said it will be up to the of­fen­sive line to turn po­ten­tial into re­sults.

“I think we’re close, but you can’t keep say­ing you’re close and never get it,” he said.

KIM HAIRSTON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

“The bot­tom line here is we would be happy if we’re 7-0, and we’re not,” of­fen­sive line coach Juan Castillo said.

KIM HAIRSTON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Vladimir Du­casse prac­tices with Alex Lewis, right, who has been start­ing at left tackle be­cause of Ron­nie Stan­ley’s foot in­jury.

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