Of­fen­sive line needs to re­gain its health soon

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - Mike Pre­ston

As the Ravens were beat­ing the Cleve­land Browns on Thurs­day night at M&T Bank Sta­dium, their chances for a strong fin­ish in 2016 were start­ing to di­min­ish with each of­fen­sive line­man who headed to the bench with an in­jury.

On one play, it was rookie left guard Alex Lewis. On an­other, it was cen­ter Jeremy Zut­tah. On an­other, it was left tackle Ron­nie Stan­ley. For­tu­nately, the Ravens had enough to fin­ish that game, but what about the next one Sun­day in Dal­las?

Will this group be healthy and ef­fec­tive enough to fin­ish the year?

The Ravens ap­pear to be in trou­ble. Their best of­fen­sive line­man, right guard Mar­shal Yanda, has missed three of the past four games with a shoul­der in­jury, and even if he re­turns he won’t be 100 per­cent the rest of the sea­son. Coach John Har­baugh was mum about his sta­tus Mon­day.

Har­baugh did say that Lewis left Thurs­day’s game with a high-an­kle sprain, which “is usu­ally a six-week in­jury.”

There are nu­mer­ous rea­sons why the Ravens (5-4) have strug­gled this sea­son, but the two ma­jor ones are the poor play of

quar­ter­back Joe Flacco and the of­fen­sive line. They go hand in hand.

Flacco has thrown for 2,374 yards this sea­son, but his quar­ter­back rat­ing of 78.3 puts him in the same class with Case Keenum, Ryan Fitz­patrick and Brock Osweiler. The Ravens have al­lowed 20 sacks, but Flacco has been hit or hur­ried on sev­eral oc­ca­sions in the worst beat­ing of a Baltimore quar­ter­back since Kyle Boller.

Flacco is to blame for some of his prob­lems. His me­chan­ics have been poor and he doesn’t help him­self by not step­ping up in the pocket or to the side to avoid pres­sure. In­juries have also forced the Ravens to shuffle their of­fen­sive line like a deck of cards.

A year ago this group wasn’t that good, but it hasn’t had much of a chance to es­tab­lish a rhythm this sea­son. The Ravens weren’t go­ing to be dom­i­nant any­way, but now it’s about be­ing re­spectable.

The Ravens are ranked 24th in the NFL in points (20.2 per game), 25th in yards (333 per game) and 28th in rush­ing with an av­er­age of 85.9. In three of their next seven games, the Ravens face re­spectable de­fenses in Dal­las, Philadel­phia and New England, and Cincin­nati and Mi­ami have strong de­fen­sive lines.

On de­fense, the Cow­boys are ranked No. 12 in yards al­lowed (345.7 per game) and No. 8 in points (18.9). Dal­las also has 19 sacks, tied for 17th most in the league.

On the flip side, you won­der how much bet­ter the Ravens can get on of­fense. They have good weapons in wide re­ceivers Steve Smith Sr. and Mike Wal­lace and Flacco is tough to beat if he gets hot, but it’s hard to have a pro­duc­tive pass­ing game if the run­ning game isn’t work­ing and Flacco is throw­ing from his back.

Ravens run­ning backs Ter­rance West (Tow­son Univer­sity, North­west­ern High) and Ken­neth Dixon rushed for more than 100 yards com­bined against Cleve­land on Thurs­day night, but that’s false hope. The Browns can’t beat any­body but them­selves.

With Yanda out, the Ravens are missing one of the league’s best guards. Lewis’ in­jury takes away an­other guard.

Asked if Lewis will go on in­jured re­serve, Har­baugh said, “There’s noth­ing im­mi­nent along those lines. We’re go­ing to try to see where that goes in the next cou­ple weeks. Hope­fully we can get him back.” And Yanda’s sta­tus mov­ing for­ward? “We’ll let you know as we go, see how he pro­gresses,” Har­baugh said.

Zut­tah has strug­gled the en­tire year, partly be­cause of shoul­der and neck ail­ments. Stan­ley has per­formed poorly in his past two starts, strug­gling with tech­nique and slow feet. With seven games re­main­ing, has he hit the prover­bial wall that so many rook­ies do late in the sea­son?

The Ravens’ most de­pend­able of­fen­sive line­man has been right tackle Rick Wag­ner, but the an­chor of the line shouldn’t be an av­er­age player.

A good of­fen­sive line can mask a lot of prob­lems. It can hide its own sorry de­fense with a dom­i­nat­ing run­ning game and at the same time wear down the op­po­si­tion. It can make an av­er­age bunch of skill play­ers look bet­ter, and there is noth­ing more de­mor­al­iz­ing in the sport than when an op­po­nent has one of those 11-, 12-, or 13-play drives con­sist­ing of smash-mouth foot­ball.

Even in the pass-happy NFL, ev­ery team still wants to be able to run the ball.

With the Ravens, that’s not the ma­jor goal right now. They need to get healthy. They need to find a rhythm.

They need to do it quickly.

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