By Mike Preston
The Baltimore Sun
August 1, 1999
Left tackle Jonathan Ogden is now the elder statesman of the Ravens' offensive line after three seasons in the NFL. All the former starters are gone. Center Steve Everitt plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. Tackle Tony Jones has won two championships with the Denver Broncos. Tackle Orlando Brown is in Cleveland and center/guard Wally Williams is on the New Orleans Saints roster.
"There has been quite a change. I'm the only one left," Ogden said yesterday. "Maybe that would make a difference if we had the same offense, but I'm trying to learn this offense, too. We're all in the same boat."
Maybe that's a good thing.
After having one of the league's most prolific offenses in 1996, the Ravens have had two of the worst in the past two years. Last season, the Ravens ranked No. 26 in the league, averaging 101.8 rushing and 179.3 passing yards. They converted on 64 of 207 third-down situations.
Fingers were pointed in a lot of directions, but five at the offensive line.
"To be honest, we were never put in certain situations to perform up to our potential," said starting right guard Jeff Blackshear. "We had the Wally holdout, which affected us, and we never settled on that left guard/center situation. We were always off balance. If you look at all the top teams in the league, they all have a core group of offensive linemen that have been together for a while. That's what you need, rep after rep after rep."
The offensive line has been getting that in Camp Billick. It's a group that isn't as talented as the offensive lines of the past, but the Ravens hope a new offensive system can make center Jeff Mitchell, left guard James Atkins, right tackle Harry Swayne, Blackshear and Ogden an effective unit.
So far in training camp, the Ravens have had problems jumping offside, but that can be corrected. Those are mental errors, not physical. The pass protection has been pretty good. That in itself would be an improvement over last season, when the Ravens allowed 41 sacks.
"I'm pleased with the offensive line," Billick said. "The quarterbacks are getting some good protection. There's some keen competition for spots five through nine if we decide to go that deep."
Building this unit will take some time. Swayne is new, acquired in the off-season from the Denver Broncos. Mitchell played well in eight games last season, but has yet to play an entire 16-game schedule. Atkins played well in limited time at tackle and guard last season, but tackle is his natural position. Left guard has been a trouble position since Ogden vacated that spot two seasons ago.
Since then, the Ravens have tried Leo Goeas, Williams, Mitchell, Ben Cavil and Herman Arvie. The only consistent player on the left side has been Ogden, a two-time Pro Bowl selection.
"I call that position musical guard," Ogden said. "It makes it difficult on me because you have to get used to who you're playing with."
Familiarity is a major problem. Except for Blackshear and Swayne, none of the starters has experience in the West Coast offense. Tom Flores ran the offense when Blackshear played with the Seattle Seahawks, and Mike Shanahan runs the offense in Denver. One of the reasons Billick traded for guard/center Everett Lindsay, the team's sixth lineman, was to help teach the offense.
It's a little more complicated than the system used by former coach Ted Marchibroda.
"The terms are different," Ogden said. "The center has a lot of things to think about, so you can't only depend on him for the call. They are throwing so much at us so fast. We'll learn one or two plays at a meeting that night, but run five new ones at practice the next day. It's a fast pace around here."
But overall, the new offensive scheme should help the offensive line. The Ravens were predictable last season. They were strictly a seven-step-drop-back, pocket-passing team. Billick's offense has more dimensions. The Ravens will roll out and run play action more. There are more three- to five-step drop backs, which feature more of a slide pass protection scheme. Versatility can compensate for talent.
"Sacks are caused for a lot of reasons," Ogden said. "Everyone usually blames the offensive line, but sometimes they are the result of a running back messing up, the quarterback holding the ball too long or the receiver running the wrong route.
"Honestly, we can become very good, better than any time here. Potential-wise, we're not as strong as my first year, but we weren't cohesive. Hopefully, by the end of preseason, we'll have that cohesiveness. Realistically, though, we're looking at the first or second game."
"As a pro, you understand that these things happen where you lose players," Blackshear said. "But we've got a bunch of players who work hard and don't complain. What I like about this offense is that every down we're going for the throat, the big play. We're not going to nickel-and-dime people, chomp and chomp down the field. It's wide-open. Every play can be a big play."
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