The play of the Baltimore Ravens offensive line in 2010 was at times…offensive. Pardon the pun, but for a group that has been considered a strength of the Ravens over the previous two seasons underachieved in a major way. It is easy to make the argument that this unit was the most disappointing for the Ravens in ’10. So what happened? What led to the Ravens running backs only being able to run the ball for 3.8 yards per carry, and to Joe Flacco being sacked 40 times in the regular season?
I wish I could point to a rash of injuries, forcing a slew of back-ups into action. Or, the Ravens having to rebuild the line after personnel losses, but the lines struggles can largely be pointed at the loss of one player. There have been many rumors that the Ravens had been dissatisfied with the work ethic of tackle Jared Gaither. With the emergence of rookie tackle Michael Oher in 2009, the Ravens felt they needed to hold an open competition for the left tackle position. Gaither had held the spot for the previous 2 seasons and was hopeful that the Ravens would reward him for his efforts with a long term contract. Gaither began to skip out on voluntary work-outs and seemed to be upset by the developments and the lack of the Ravens interest in extending his contract. Gaither then got injured after showing up under weight in to training camp, or he decided to sit out the year in protest. Either way, Gaither’s unavailability forced a major shift of the offensive line.
Oher locked up the LT spot without much competition, but the Ravens needed to fill the spot he vacated on right side of the line. For most of training camp it appeared that one from among the group of Oniel Cousins , Tony Moll, or Ramon Harewood had the inside track to the RT spot. The problem was that none of them stepped up or stayed healthy enough to play the position reliably. The Ravens were forced to look elsewhere for a RT. They turned to guard Marshall Yanda. Yanda performed admirably as the Ravens RT without a lot of time to prepare for the position change. Despite his solid play at tackle the Ravens sorely missed his toughness on the interior line and the running game suffered.
Moving into the starting line-up and taking the right guard spot vacated by Yanda was Chris Chester. Chester has been a valuable reserve on the Ravens line since 2006, but playing a full season at guard exposed the flaws in his game. Chester struggled to sustain blocks and take advantage of his athleticism in the run blocking game and he ended up on the ground far too often in pass protection. With Oher at LT, Yanda at RT and Chester at RG you could argue that the Ravens were weaker at three positions along the line compared to the ’09 season.
Not only were the Ravens not as productive at three spots along the line, but C Matt Birk started to show signs of age and battled nagging shoulder and neck injuries through most of the season. Birk found the way to get himself ready to play week after week, but he also struggled to be much of a force while run blocking. It makes sense that the Ravens running game suffered so much in ’10, two-thirds of their interior line were not creating the type of holes the backs needed to make hay on the gorund and they had two tackles as new starters at their respective positions.
Left Guard Ben Grubbs had a solid, if unspectacular season. Grubbs has not developed into the consistent pro-bowl performer he was billed as when drafted in 2007, but his play along with Oher’s made the Ravens a team that looked to run left as often as possible. But perhaps that desire to run left made the Ravens all to predictable in the running game.
So what do the Ravens do to get more out of the offensive line in 2011? The first priority is to straighten out the tackle position and move Yanda back to guard. Oher played well at times at LT, but he struggled with penalties and at times against elite pass rushers, as was evident in the play-off game in Pittsburgh. Some believe Oher can be fine at LT, but others argue that he does not have the reach or demeanor to stay on the left. That Ravens also need to determine whether or not they want to give Gaither another shot to win back their faith. If they can re-sign Gaither for cheap, I would be in favor of it, but he needs to be motivated to work and ready to battle through nagging injuries. If Gaither is not deemed a reliable option than the club needs to draft or sign another tackle.
The center position could also see some change. Birk has indicated he wants to come back for the final year of his contract with the Ravens. If he can get healthy and play at a higher level that is a good thing, if not the Ravens need to find a center of the future. That Ravens also need to add depth along the line. Despite the lines struggles, it was a good thing that none of the starters missed significant time with an injury. Had they, the lack of line talent among the Ravens reserves. The Ravens need to address the lack of depth and that starts with Ozzie Newsome and company drafting better talent along the line.