There were questions about how the Ravens would replace Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, Dannell Ellerbe and Bernard Pollard, Anquan Boldin and later Dennis Pitta. But few people asked this offseason about how the Ravens would replace retiring center Matt Birk. Teammates and coaches loved Birk, valuing not just his steady play and toughness, but also his intelligence and leadership. A 14-year pro who played four seasons in Baltimore, Birk did so much more than take on the top interior defensive linemen in the game. It’s a shame, however, that it took the struggles of the Ravens’ current offensive line for some fans to appreciate him fully. The previous two years, I would get occasional emails from fans criticizing Birk, complaining that he was yielding too much penetration and not getting enough of a push in the run game. Now, I’m getting regular emails about whether the Ravens could talk the 37-year-old out of retirement. The Ravens certainly miss Birk every bit as much as, if not more than, the others mentioned above and that’s not just because first-year starting center Gino Gradkowski has struggled at times. I’ve said this before, but I think every current Ravens offensive lineman would tell you that they are not playing individually as well as they did last year. I’d have to think that has something to do with the fact that the anchor of last year’s group is now enjoying retirement and isn’t around to make line calls and make sure everybody is on the same page.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s proclamation yesterday that the Ravens aren’t standing pat and are in the process of making changes in the run game probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The frustration level in the locker room from certain players, including running back Ray Rice, following Sunday’s 19-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers was palpable to observers. Rock bottom was clearly having four straight plays inside the opponent’s 4-yard line and failing to run it in. Not surprisingly, with a game against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers six days away, Harbaugh was not about to lay out the potential changes for all to hear. But he certainly hinted that the Ravens will adjust their blocking scheme. That probably means less zone blocking concepts and more straight-ahead, man-on-man blocking. The offensive linemen have repeatedly said that run game coordinator Juan Castillo’s system is not much different than what they were using last year and if they are griping -- and I don’t know that they are -- they’ve kept it private. But I would think any offensive lineman would rather just line up, blast the guy in front of him and play old-school football. It will be interesting to watch Sunday to see what the Ravens do differently.
And one last comment about the offensive line: it has to be concerning that some of the same problems keep cropping up. For example, teams had success earlier this season blitzing the Ravens straight up the middle. The Ravens haven’t figured out how to consistently block it as evidenced by Packers middle linebacker A.J. Hawk shooting the gap a couple of times to hit Joe Flacco. Every one of their opponents have seen on film that the Ravens are vulnerable to that, so they are going to keep doing it until the Ravens stop it.
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Harbaugh didn’t hint at any significant roster changes, but the status of veteran wide receiver Brandon Stokley and left tackle Bryant McKinnie is probably worth watching this week. Stokley was the odd-man out in the Ravens’ decision to dress five of their six receivers against the Packers. With Harbaugh stating that a healthy Jacoby Jones will probably play a bigger role on offense going forward, and Tandon Doss and Marlon Brown continuing to make plays opposite of Torrey Smith, it’s hard to foresee where Stokley gets his snaps. As for McKinnie, Harbaugh said that he was healthy enough to play and he was not left inactive for injury reasons. If nothing else, McKinnie is a good insurance policy, but him being inactive on the same day new left tackle Eugene Monroe was getting his first start with the Ravens certainly spurs some questions about his future with the organization.
Lost in the offense’s struggles and the defense seemingly running out of gas against Green Bay was Jimmy Smith’s third-quarter end zone interception of Aaron Rodgers. It was Smith’s first interception since his rookie season, and it was especially significant because the third-year cornerback did everything on the play that he’s been criticized for not doing throughout his young career. Smith got good position on Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson, running with him stride-for-stride. He was physical, and then he showed good awareness and ball skills by turning around and making the interception. The Ravens have gotten some really good defensive performances this year from established stars like Terrell Suggs and from unheralded players like Arthur Jones and James Ihedigbo. But it’s hard to imagine any of their defensive players have improved since Week 1 as much as Smith.
There’s been enough second-guessing of some of the coaching decisions Sunday, so there's no need to revisit those plays. But it is does seem worth mentioning that the Ravens twice threw the ball down the field to Vonta Leach, both resulting in incompletions, yet the blocking fullback didn’t get a shot to see if he could push the pile and score on the three straight running plays from the Packers’ 2. I understand that Leach doesn’t carry the ball too often, but with Rice and Bernard Pierce getting repeatedly stuffed, it would have been interesting to see if the burly fullback would have gotten in.
And finally, I mentioned some former Ravens in my first paragraph, and it seems fitting this week with Boldin’s San Francisco 49ers heading to Tennessee to take on Pollard’s Titans. They're two men who absolutely love to compete and impose their will physically and never back down from confrontation. I would love to see those two line up against one another. Since his 13-catch and 208-yard performance in Week 1 against the Packers, Boldin has 16 catches for 213 yards and one touchdown in his past five games. And yes, the Ravens still miss him, especially in the red zone. As for another former Raven, strong-side linebacker Paul Kruger is struggling to get to the quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. After getting a sack and four tackles in Week 1, Kruger has 12 tackles and no sacks in his past five games.