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With new title, personnel, Ravens' Juan Castillo has put last season behind him

Juan Castillo endured awkward circumstances and heavy resistance to his blocking techniques and coaching methods during a rough season last year as the Ravens' run-game coordinator.

Despite the challenging year, Castillo was named the Ravens' offensive line coach this season.

That's why it didn't come as a surprise Thursday when Castillo repeatedly declined to elaborate on what went awry a year ago.

"Well, I'd rather not talk about last year," Castillo said three times during his first interview since last year's training camp. "This is this year."

And so far, this season has gotten off to an encouraging start for Castillo and the offensive line.

Highly respected in NFL circles for his work coaching the Philadelphia Eagles' offensive line for 13 seasons, Castillo was hired as the Ravens' run-game coordinator last year and signed to a three-year contract averaging $1 million annually following a small bidding war with the Chicago Bears and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Things didn't go smoothly, though, for Castillo or the offensive line one season removed from winning Super Bowl XLVII. Castillo, 54, was hired to oversee the offensive line, but the Ravens kept offensive line coach Andy Moeller last season and the two had different philosophies.

The Ravens couldn't run the football, ranking 30th in the NFL. They averaged just 83 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry as the line didn't create enough holes and running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce struggled with injuries. It was the worst rushing season in franchise history, with only 1,328 yards gained.

The offensive line couldn't consistently protect quarterback Joe Flacco, who absorbed brutal hits as he was sacked a career-high 48 times.

Following a 19-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Oct. 13 in which the Ravens rushed for only 47 yards on 22 carries, team sources confirmed several linemen complained to coach John Harbaugh about new blocking schemes implemented by Castillo and told Harbaugh they wanted to return to the old-school, physical tactics used during their Super Bowl run.

There was an emotional meeting with Castillo during which offensive linemen voiced their issues, saying he was too regimented and unwilling to tailor his techniques to the Ravens' personnel, team sources said.

Traded to the Miami Dolphins after the Ravens acquired left tackle Eugene Monroe in a trade from the Jacksonville Jaguars, left tackle Bryant McKinnie told The Baltimore Sun last year he respected Castillo, but emphasized that a disconnect existed between Castillo and the linemen.

"Juan likes to develop young players, because that's what he did in Philly," McKinnie said. "He is a good coach and he does help you with your technique, but he wants it done a certain way. My thing is everybody doesn't have the exact same talent or learn things the same way. I don't feel like you can coach everybody exactly the same, not everyone is going to react the same.

"Five individuals can't do the same thing instead of trying to make everybody a robot. You need to learn about your players and know their strengths and weaknesses and coach them that way. Juan is highly rated, but it takes time to adjust to what he's looking for."

During a January news conference after the Ravens failed to make the playoffs for the first time since his arrival in 2008, Harbaugh said he could see why Castillo became a subject of controversy. The run-game coordinator title was removed, and Castillo is now just the line coach. Moeller left to become the Cleveland Browns' offensive line coach.

"I can understand why Juan is a lightning rod right now because of the way that was set up and structured," Harbaugh said in January. "We have our worst year ever running the ball, and he's got that title. So, that's on me."

A year later, Castillo is encouraged by the way he's meshing with his players.

The Ravens have two new starters: center Jeremy Zuttah, acquired in a trade from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and right tackle Rick Wagner. And left guard Kelechi Osemele has made an impressive return from back surgery.

"I think the important thing as any coach is the players know you and really trust you, and I think that happens through time," Castillo said. "I think the guys now, they're getting to know me a little bit, and hopefully they trust me."

A new-look offensive line had an encouraging debut last Thursday. The Ravens rushed for 237 yards and a touchdown on 48 carries during a 23-3 preseason victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

During the first play from scrimmage, the offensive line fanned out to the right and moved laterally in unison like a well-practiced ballet troupe as they executed new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's trademark zone-stretch run.  Rice decisively read his blocks to gain 6 yards on the play. Pierce capped the drive with a physical 2-yard touchdown run.

"It could look better, we could get more," Castillo said when asked if Rice's run was a textbook example of the zone-blocking scheme. "The nice thing is the yards were important, but the combinations, the pad level, the way we finished, how we were physical and really we were trying to punish people. I think that's what we took more out of that, not so much the yards, but how the combinations look and how the backs were able to make the cuts."

During his lone series against the 49ers, Flacco wasn't sacked. And the running game averaged 4.9 yards per carry.

"The offensive line has played well," Harbaugh said Thursday. "They've acquitted themselves very well. I really like where they're at right now. Our coaches have done a great job with them, and I'm excited about where they're going."

Last season, the Ravens rushed for 100 yards as a team only three times. Now, Castillo is upbeat about the Ravens' ability to run the football.

"Very confident," he said. "That's what our offense is going to be. We're going to come off the football. We're going to finish, and we're going to be physical."

Castillo coached several Pro Bowl offensive linemen in Philadelphia including Jason Peters, Tra Thomas, Jermane Mayberry, Jon Runyan and Shawn Andrews. He also became known for discovering and developing undrafted linemen like Jamaal Jackson and Hank Fraley.

"No one cares more about his guys, no one works harder than Juan," former Eagles scout John Middlekauf said. "He's just a phenomenal human being whose players have always loved him. He'd run through a wall for his guys. No one will try harder to get them ready for Sundays."

As difficult and challenging as last year was, Castillo did have some willing pupils who embraced his coaching style.

That included Wagner, a fifth-round draft pick from Wisconsin who struggled as a rookie. Wagner has received solid reviews for his work as the replacement for Michael Oher.

"Juan is a great coach, he knows what it takes to be a great lineman in the NFL," Wagner said. "We know how he coaches now, and what he wants. He demands excellence. To an extent, yeah, it bothered us when he was criticized by the same token, we know what he is, what he brings to the table. We had his back."

The Ravens spent this offseason overhauling their offense by hiring Kubiak, retaining Monroe and tight end Dennis Pitta and signing wide receiver Steve Smith.

If the line fails to hold up its end of the bargain, then Castillo figures to come under fire again.

Castillo acknowledged that it was hard not to take the negative comments personally.

"I think if you're a competitor, I think you do," he said. "You obviously want to be better. Last year is last year. This year is this year. It's a great opportunity for us."

awilson@baltsun.com

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