NEW ORLEANS — Soaking up the Super Bowl experience, Ravens left guard Kelechi Osemele spent Tuesday's Media Day, joking around with current teammates and hanging out with former NFL offensive lineman and fellow Iowa State alum Keith Sims.
A smile never left the rookie's face until he was asked about the challenge of facing the San Francisco 49ers front seven in Sunday's Super Bowl XLVII. Then, his tone suddenly grew serious.
"I've never seen so many star-studded, first-round picks, play-making, fast, shifty guys in my entire life, let alone on the same team," Osemele said. "This is definitely going to be a great challenge, but what else would you want? What other way would you want to go out than to play the best team in the NFL?"
In the Ravens' wild-card victory over the Indianapolis Colts, a reworked offensive line contained the accomplished pass-rushing duo of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and paved the way for 172 rushing yards. The following week in Denver, the group dominated two of the game's most feared pass rushers (Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil) and allowed Joe Flacco to be sacked just once by the Broncos in a little over five quarters. Then, in an AFC championship rematch with the New England Patriots, Flacco dropped back to pass 37 times and was taken down twice.
While much of the talk this week has been on the hot hands of Flacco and new offensive coordinator and play caller Jim Caldwell, the Ravens' offensive skill players were quick to point out that the reason the team is preparing to play for a championship is the five guys of front. Vulnerable in the regular season, the offensive line has been dominant in the playoffs — but the Ravens agreed that they haven't faced a front seven as good as the one they'll match up with Sunday.
The 49ers have three accomplished pass rushers, as linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks and defensive tackle Justin Smith have accounted for 29 sacks this season. Behind them are quick and athletic linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman who combined for 354 tackles, 2 ½ sacks and three interceptions.
"I'm pleased in what we've done in the three games we've played, [but] we can get better," said Ravens offensive line coach Andy Moeller. "Our toughest challenge is before us. This front is as good as we've played, both on first down in their base 3-4 and on third down when they rush the passer. We're playing the best defense in the biggest game of the year."
By now, Ravens fans know the story. With Jah Reid, one of four players to start at left guard for the Ravens this season, done for the year with a toe injury, head coach John Harbaugh overhauled the offensive line in the days leading up to his team's playoff opener.
Michael Oher, who started all 16 regular-season games at left tackle, was moved over to the right side, where he played last season. Veteran Bryant McKinnie, who started every game last year but was relegated to the bench this season due to poor conditioning and practice habits, was inserted back at left tackle. Osemele, who had started every game of the regular season at right tackle, moved to left guard, a position he had played in college.
Moving around three players on the offensive line — center Matt Birk and Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda remained entrenched their spots — was viewed as an extremely risky move just days before the playoffs.
However, the decision may have saved the Ravens' season. Flacco was sacked 35 times in the regular season, more than all but seven NFL quarterbacks. In three playoff games, he's been sacked four times, taking advantage of the improved protection to throw eight touchdowns and no interceptions. The Ravens' running game in the regular season averaged 118.8 yards per game, but that number is up to 148.7 yards in the playoffs.
"The mix of their offensive line right now is really working for them," said Justin Smith, who noted that the 49ers will key on stopping running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce more than on pressuring Flacco. "The whole group has really come together and they're playing their best football when they need it."
Yanda, the Ravens' best offensive linemen, said what makes the 49ers so tough is that they have no weak links. "There is no one we can say, 'Oh, we can handle him one-on-one.'"
Much of the pressure will be on McKinnie and Osemele on the left side, because they'll most likely spend much of the evening matched up against Aldon Smith and Justin Smith. Aldon Smith set a franchise record with 19 ½ sacks this season, and his 33.5 career sacks are the most by any player in his first two years in the NFL.
Justin Smith, who is not related, has only three sacks this year, but he notched 81 tackles, including 14 for losses, and 56 quarterback hits. His coach, Jim Harbaugh, called him "one of the greatest players to ever play in the National Football League." It's an overstatement perhaps, though the Ravens know they'll have their hands full.
"This is a great test and this is a great platform for us to play," McKinnie said. "If we give Flacco time, I feel like that will open up a lot of things in the pass game. If we control the line of scrimmage, that will open up things with the run."
The 49ers defense finished the regular season ranked third overall in yards allowed per game (294.4), fourth against the run (94.2) and fourth against the pass (200.2). It also allowed only 17.1 points per game, the second fewest in the league, and was 11th in the NFL with 38 sacks.
However, in two postseason games the 49ers have allowed an average of 476 yards and sacked the quarterback twice. Aldon Smith has gone five games without a sack, while Justin Smith has been slowed by a torn triceps. For the Ravens to win Sunday, they believe they must keep those two quiet.
"If they can start off good and kind of set the tone, we'll be able to do what we want to do," Flacco said. "If not, it may be a tough day for us, but I think our offensive line has been doing a great job and if they can continue to do that, then we'll do what we want to be able to do."
Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun