By Aaron Wilson, The Baltimore Sun
9:47 PM EDT, August 20, 2013
Individually, Ravens right offensive guard Marshal Yanda and left offensive guard Kelechi Osemele solidify their spots on the offensive line. Together, they represent arguably one of the top guard tandems in the league
Yanda is so tough and stubborn that he stonewalled the formidable San Francisco 49ers' defensive line during a Super Bowl victory despite a torn rotator cuff that required surgery five days later.
Osemele is athletic and imposing enough that heavy consideration was once given to installing him as the starting left tackle prior to Bryant McKinnie being retained with a two-year, $7 million contract.
Both linemen play with a feisty, gritty style, embracing the dirty work of the trenches.
"I don't think there's a better pair of guards in the NFL than Yanda and Osemele," said former NFL offensive lineman Ross Tucker, a SiriusXM NFL Radio host. "Yanda is as nasty as they come, and I don't know if people really know how good that K.O. guy is. He's unbelievable."
Conversations surrounding the best guard tandems in the league generally revolve around only a few units. The Yanda-Osemele partnership is a relative newcomer among the elite guard pairings. Besides Yanda, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, and Osemele, other top guard tandems include the New Orleans Saints' Jahri Evans and former Ravens starter Ben Grubbs, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph and the San Francisco 49ers' Mike Iupati and Alex Boone.
"It's going to be one of the better ones," Ravens run-game coordinator Juan Castillo said of Yanda and Osemele. "That's the way they are working, and that's the way it's going to be."
Osemele is only in his second season after being drafted in the second round out of Iowa State, but he is confident that he and Yanda have already formed a superior guard tandem.
"Yeah, I feel really good about that me and Marshal are probably the best in the league," Osemele said. "I have a lot of confidence in what we can do."
Osemele started every regular-season game at right offensive tackle during his rookie season before shifting to left guard in the playoffs for the Ravens' Super Bowl championship run.
It was a successful enough personnel shift that the coaching staff now holds as much confidence in the guard position as any other spot on the roster.
At 6-foot-5, 330 pounds, Osemele provides a mauling presence at the line of scrimmage with a signature hand punch. An All-Big 12 Conference left tackle at Iowa State, Osemele remains the Ravens' fallback plan at the left tackle spot if anything should happen to McKinnie.
"K.O is a young guy with unbelievable potential and is really starting to find his way in this league, because he's doing some very, very good things," Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "Highly-physical guy who can run, can pull, he can do it all. He has natural strength. He's got a little nastiness to him as well."
Osemele judges his effectiveness through signs of intimidation as much as how frequently he delivers a punishing block.
Osemele looks for silence from a normally outspoken defensive lineman, blood on their jersey or a look of discouragement to identify the signs of a defeated opponent.
"By the fourth quarter, if guys aren't jawing at the mouth anymore, they're quiet and won't look you in the eye, that's when you pretty much know you have them beat," Osemele said. "It's just smash-mouth, blue-collar football. Be physical, be nasty and wear them out in the fourth quarter, that's just the way we play."
After spending the majority of his rookie year at tackle, Osemele now prefers lining up inside at guard.
Osemele has already set his ambitions on being named to the Pro Bowl this year in his first full season at the position.
"I feel like the sky is the limit as far as my potential, and I can only get better," Osemele said. "At guard, it's more a physical type of play. It's not too much finesse. It's a natural position for me. At guard, I can actually use my strengths more than anywhere else."
Yanda has built a reputation for a blue-collar work ethic for haunting weight rooms, and for his resolve.
The 6-foot-3, 305-pound lineman has played in games a few days after undergoing surgery, gutting it out through injuries that would sideline most players. He was sidelined for the first half of training camp after his shoulder surgery that he delayed until after the playoffs before recently being cleared to participate in full-team drills.
Yanda grew up on a farm in Iowa, rising at dawn to perform back-breaking chores. He once won a cash bet as a rookie when he allowed cornerback Samari Rolle to repeatedly jolt him with a Taser.
That toughness has translated into success on the football field.
"Yanda has a very aggressive style, very physical, keeps his feet chopping and has good upper body strength," said retired Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, an ESPN analyst. "He plays the position like you should with a gritty mentality where nothing's going to come easy. Yanda has been very good for a long time. He sets the tempo for that line."
Modest and low-key, Yanda doesn't seek attention. The former Iowa standout tends to shrug off compliments.
When Yanda signed his five-year, $32 million contract two years ago, he drove to Baltimore from Iowa to sign his deal instead of flying into town. His first meal after being given a $10 million signing bonus wasn't at a fancy steakhouse, instead dining at local sandwich shop near team headquarters.
"Marshal is your typical Iowa lineman, a really tough kid with his technique down to a science," former Chicago Bears director of college scouting Greg Gabriel said. "He's got that farm-boy strength, and you could run a clinic by watching his technique. He's considered an overachiever because he's undersized, but he's as good at what he does as anyone in the league."
Now, how he and Osemele stack up against their NFL colleagues isn't a preoccupation for Yanda.
"Yeah, that really doesn't matter, as long as we're doing good as a team and as an offensive line," Yanda said. "Just physical guys and smart guys, we all get after it, not just me and K.O. We're all working hard."
Yanda maintains his focus on his blocking techniques, wasting no motion as he uses his hands and feet to create leverage against defenders.
Yanda's crushing shoulder block on Denver Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard after pulling to his left opened a gaping hole for Pro Bowl runner Ray Rice to burst through during the fourth quarter of a double-overtime win in the AFC divisional-round playoffs.
Yanda didn't allow a sack last season.
"Marshal has been around the block," Caldwell said. "He’s a guy that’s very, very physical on the interior, but he’s also very, very experienced.
"He has been through the rounds where he can handle different types of pass rushers. He can handle different types of run stoppers on the inside. He has the strength and power to do so."
Osemele wants to become the best guard in the game. To earn that distinction, though, he knows he'll have to trump Yanda, his mentor.
"Marshal really does set the tone, especially when I watch the film and he has a better game than me," Osemele said. "That makes me up my level of play. My goal this year is to outplay Marshal."
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