Through the first four weeks of the 2013 season, Monday morning quarterbacks around town have pointed fingers in many directions as to where the root cause of the Ravens offensive struggles consist.
Is it Joe Flacco, the Super Bowl MVP-winning quarterback who received a large pay day and has every snap judged by fans and critics alike?
Is it the receivers, who’s penchant of dropping passes and dealing with communication and timing issues with said QB has created problems with the game plan? What about the run game? Surely the play of Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce are to blame for a unit that ranks near the bottom in total offense?
Or could it be an offensive line, largely unchanged from the great playoff run of last season, who’s focus as a unit seems to be missing at times, who have struggled to open holes for Rice and Pierce?
Through four weeks, the root cause of the struggles start with the Ravens offensive line. It reared its ugly head with last week’s game in Buffalo when the first two offensive plays were flagged with penalties. Not the way you want to start a road game.
The play has been so disappointing that even head coach John Harbaugh has chimed in with his thoughts, calling the line ‘disappointing’ and stating the obvious.
“We had some offensive penalties that are just unnecessary, [a] facemask penalty the first play of the game. It’s absolutely unnecessary. Ray gets a little jumpy and jumps offside. Now we’re backed up inside or right around our 5-yard line. We’ve got to start faster.”
Communication is lacking from this bunch right now. Matt Birk, who retired after last season was the Ravens anchor and the veteran of the group. Birk’s presence on the line being able to bark out changes in a call, recognizing different fronts and blitzes and utilizing silent snap counts in loud environments made this line move like a well-oiled machine.
In turn, that helped with schemes in the run game, clearing holes for Rice and Pierce and when that happened it opened up a potent passing game where Flacco could stretch the field with long plays.
First year starter Gino Gradkowski has dealt with growing pains as the center, and as he grows into the position, the calls he’ll make will continue to get better. Gradkowski understands himself that improvement in his play dictates how the rest of the line plays as he recently told The Baltimore Sun:
“I’m still learning, still trying to get better at the communication part, at recognizing things a little bit faster.”
Besides the errors in communication, the amount of penalties by the offense in general have been alarming. The Ravens 13 penalties puts them in a tie for 12th-most in the NFL.
For the Ravens to be successful, they’ll need to cut down on mental mistakes that put the offense in a hole they cannot dig themselves out of and get back to the basics that make the line successful.
The frustrating part is that contributors on the line who have been starters are the ones creating penalties.
Bryant McKinnie was flagged for two 15-yard personal foul penalties for face mask on a defender. Probably the most disciplined of the unit, Marshal Yanda was flagged for a false start against the Bills. Kelechi Osemele, too was caught with a facemask penalty in Buffalo and has struggled with timing and his play suffers.
The penalties begin to add up and when the team is constantly faced with third-and-long situations, blocking Flacco has been a problem as teams bring different blitz packages into the equation. Its a snowballing effect.
It’s gotten so dire of a situation that Ozzie Newsome made his first in-season trade in the team’s history, sending 2014 4th and 5th round picks to Jacksonville for monster tackle Eugene Monroe. It won’t be before long until McKinnie will be the backup to Monroe, or shipped out of town via trade.
At times, the offense has shown flashes in its game because the mental errors on the line are not present. Flacco has time to throw and make completions and Rice and Pierce run the ball to set up short-yardage situations.
This offensive line is close to being a unit everyone knows they’re capable of. Collectively, they have been here before and struggled during the season last year before turning it on in the playoffs. They have a history. Now is the time to tap into what they know to turn around a struggling offense.
It all begins up front.