Once a weakness, deep and talented offensive line now Ravens' strength

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
The Ravens' deep offensive line might be a strength for years to come.

At every mention of their struggles a year earlier, the Ravens offensive linemen and coach Juan Castillo were steadfast in redirecting their thoughts to the 2014 edition of the group — a collectively healthier, more talented bunch that found itself in the perfect scheme.

After a season in which Joe Flacco was sacked barely more than once per game, a journeyman running back ran for more than 1,200 yards, and the line blocked for the league's sixth-best rushing attack, the unit that took the worst of the criticism for 2013's 8-8 campaign emerged as a strength this past season, and potentially will be for years to come.

"It's pretty evident. I think if we maintain the same guys in the room, the sky is the limit," left tackle Eugene Monroe said. "You can watch the film — we've been the most physical line in the league, hands down, and that's only going to get better."

By every measure, the 2014 offensive line improved over the group in 2013. The team's yards per carry increased from 3.1 to 4.5. Flacco took 60 percent fewer sacks than a year ago. And with every meaningful lineman under contract for 2015, the potential for an even better unit is real for coach John Harbaugh.

"The future is really great for our offensive line," he said. "When we first came in here in 2008, we said, 'You start in the trenches.' A team is built from the trenches out, and we were pretty strong in the trenches this year. That's the foundation of our team. … We have some really good, young players on both sides of the ball up front going forward, and we need to build on that."

Despite the departure of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who took the Denver Broncos' head coaching job and was replaced by former Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman, Harbaugh anticipates the same successful scheme to carry over.

"That's one of the major reasons that Marc [Trestman] is the right man for the job, because he has got a heck of a background in this particular system, and he wants to build on that," Harbaugh said. "We've got a lot of coaches in place, and we're going to build on the past." Harbaugh called Kubiak and his former staffers from Houston "the foremost guys around the stretch-zone" running scheme.

"We've learned from that, and that's a part of us now going forward, and we'll keep it," Harbaugh said.

Trestman said he anticipates continuing "complementary football" in Baltimore, with a run-pass balance that the team has come to be known for.

The success in 2014 was built on the strength of the Ravens' longest-tenured starting linemen, guards Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele. The former, a year after he was admittedly limited coming off a winter shoulder surgery, played nearly every snap for the Ravens while earning his fourth straight Pro Bowl selection and making multiple All-Pro teams. He even showcased his versatility by moving out to right tackle in place of the injured Rick Wagner for the season's final three games.

Osemele, despite missing a pair of games with a knee injury in October, proved capable of playing at an All-Pro level. Establishing his brutal standard of dominace was a priority for Osemele as he returned from a back injury that limited him to just six games in 2013.

"That was something that was my primary concern — to come back healthy, and I was able to do that," Osemele said. "I was able to come back healthy. I really wanted to kind of make a statement that, 'I'm here. I'm back again. I'm ready to play.' I think I did that."

On either side of the guards, three players in their first full seasons as starters for the Ravens provided substantial upgrades. Monroe started 11 games at left tackle, a year after being acquired in a midseason trade from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Center Jeremy Zuttah, acquired last spring from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, played all but eight offensive snaps for the Ravens and took over as the signal-caller on the offensive line. His athleticism meshed well with offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's zone running scheme, and he took over as a leader in the offensive line room from the moment he arrived.

And at right tackle — a position that seemingly went unaddressed after Michael Oher's departure — the Ravens had a top-flight solution in-house in Wagner, a 2013 fifth-round draft pick. The Wisconsin product played sparingly in his rookie season, but stepped in as the starter at right tackle last season and didn't let go until he was injured in Week 16.

Wagner was penalized just twice all season, and graded out as the team's best pass blocker, according to ProFootballFocus.com. He suffered a Lisfranc sprain in his foot against the Houston Texans, but that injury only served to showcase the line's promising future in another way.

With Wagner and Monroe both going down in Houston, Castillo brought rookies James Hurst and John Urschel back into the starting lineup for the first time since Week 8. The former was chosen to fill in for Monroe when he suffered a Week 4 knee injury instead of reserve Jah Reid, while Urschel started two games for an injured Osemele over Gino Gradkowski, the starting center in 2013.

Hurst started five regular season games, and became the first undrafted rookie left tackle to start a playoff game, the AFC wild-card game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Urschel started three games in the regular season, plus two in the postseason.

"Honestly, I really feel like Urschel, in a few years, is going to be a Pro Bowler himself if he gets the opportunity, if he gets in there and plays," Osemele said. "I think [Urschel and Hurst] are just both really hard-working guys."

Hurst believes that came from Castillo.

"He's a hard worker in everything he does," Hurst said. "And his job, coaching and everything he has to do, he's going to outwork everyone. So, he takes that mentality to us."

In his season-ending press conference, Harbaugh said Monroe would enter training camp as the starting left tackle, meaning Hurst returns to a swing tackle role and Urschel likely backs up the guards and center.

But for a unit that succeeded in part because of able deputies behind its starters, that depth will be "crucial," Osemele said.

"Having everybody come back, and knowing that it's going to be competitive, guys are going to have to stay in shape to be able to stay on this team," he said. "I definitely think that's going to be a strength for next year, knowing that we're going to have that much depth and that much competitiveness."

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