By Matt Vensel, The Baltimore Sun
3:44 PM EDT, September 9, 2012
Though his daily job responsibilities include sumo-wrestling 300-pound defensive linemen and banging facemasks with blitzing linebackers, Matt Birk side-stepped an open-ended question.
Asked to evaluate how the Ravens offensive line fared last season on the long road to the AFC championship game, Birk first pointed to the team's 13-5 record, including the playoffs. He talked about the high standards that he and his fellow linemen have set for themselves. And he acknowledged the scrutiny that comes with doing that unheralded dirty work, especially when a missed block or a blown assignment results in your quarterback getting slammed to the turf.
Fifty seconds later, the veteran center realized he wasn't exactly attacking the question head-on.
"I'm showing some agility here, doing a little side step," said Birk, now in his 15th NFL season.
After a solid 2011 regular season in which running back Ray Rice finished second in the NFL with 1,364 rushing yards and quarterback Joe Flacco tossed 20 touchdown passes, the Ravens allowed Flacco to be sacked eight times in two playoff games and averaged just 3.3 yards per carry. In the Ravens' season-ending loss, the New England Patriots had three sacks and seven quarterback hits.
Despite those struggles, the Ravens were still a dropped pass short of advancing to the Super Bowl.
A new season looms, and heading into Monday's season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens have arguably the most talented group of skill players in franchise history. But for Flacco and company to rank in the top 10 in total offense for the first time since 1997, they need an aging offensive line — one that is in the middle of a transition — to hold steady for one more season.
As the Ravens look to take that giant leap forward offensively, their linemen aren't looking back.
"You can't live in the rear-view mirror in this business," Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda said two weeks ago. "Obviously there are things we want to work on, but you work on everything."
During the offseason, even after Pro Bowl left guard Ben Grubbs signed with the New Orleans Saints, team officials pledged to improve an offensive line that coach John Harbaugh has admitted had "real issues" at times. So the Ravens spent two of their first four draft picks on offensive linemen Kelechi Osemele and Gino Gradkowski and signed veteran guard Bobbie Williams.
The Ravens regularly swapped seven different linemen in and out of the first-team unit during training camp and the preseason as they tried to determine which five will start against the Bengals.
Harbaugh hasn't revealed his plans yet, but according to two league sources with knowledge of the situation, Michael Oher is expected to start at left tackle and bump Bryant McKinnie, who turns 33 later this month, to the bench. Osemele said Saturday that "it looks like" he will also start at tackle. Williams, 35, whose birthday is two days after McKinnie's, would then likely step in at left guard.
If there is any concern about the eventual starting five not getting an opportunity to gel, players are not airing it publicly. Birk, 36, actually sees the shuffling as a positive because "you never know what's going to happen during the course of a season," as one injury can sack an offensive line.
"We're happy to have some depth," Harbaugh said. "It's good to have some depth, whether it's young depth and veteran starters or young starters and veteran depth. That's all a positive for us."
Whether he starts, as expected, or comes off the bench, Osemele says he will have a "substantial role." One of the team's two second-round picks, he started all four preseason games, transitioning near-seamlessly from right tackle to left guard and back. The powerful Iowa State product had a strong preseason, showing off athleticism and versatility, along with his sheer size and strength.
He looks like he could be another big building block on the line, and the Ravens also feel they have an heir to Birk in Gradkowski, who was drafted two rounds after Osemele. Oher is signed through 2013 and Yanda is through 2015. The Ravens are also hopeful that two of their other versatile, young offensive linemen, Jah Reid and Ramon Harewood, will one day push for starting spots.
But even with Osemele in the starting lineup instead of McKinnie, the Ravens, with an average age of 29.4, could still have one of the NFL's oldest starting offensive lines. But then again, that was also the case with the New York Giants a year ago, and they won the Super Bowl.
"I don't care what anyone says about that crap," Yanda said. "Age isn't a factor to me. As long as the guy blocks and the guy does his job at a high level, it doesn't matter. They'll be in there."
And if the transitioning offensive line can for another season continue to pave running lanes for Rice, a two-time Pro Bowl running back, and give Flacco time to complete passes to receivers like Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, we may finally see the Ravens offense break out.
"We've got talent," said Birk, switching from being evasive to optimistic. "It's great knowing going into a game knowing that if we do our jobs up front, they're going to do what they do: make plays."
Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson contributed to this article.
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