In Jacksonville, the Jaguars sacked Houston Texans quarterbacks Tom Savage and rookie Deshaun Watson 10 total times. In Cleveland, the Pittsburgh Steelers brought down Browns first-year signal caller DeShone Kizer seven times. New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning was sacked by the Dallas Cowboys only three times, but he spent much of the night sidestepping oncoming rushers rather than looking downfield.
Eight teams in the NFL allowed four or more sacks Sunday as porous offensive line play was a key culprit in some poor offensive performances league-wide.
As Ravens coach John Harbaugh reviewed the play of his own offensive line after a dominant 20-0 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, he saw plenty he liked. Quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked only once, and the group paved the way for 157 rushing yards.
“They played well. They were very physical. They had very minimal assignment errors. The technique was solid for the most part,” Harbaugh said Monday. “We were going against a really good front. I thought those guys stepped up and played really good football.”
If there was a significant non-health-related concern for the Ravens heading into their season opener Sunday, it was the play and chemistry of the offensive line. The group remained in flux all the way until early last week, when the Ravens ramped up preparations for the Bengals.
Left tackle Ronnie Stanley didn’t play the final three preseason games with a knee injury. James Hurst spent minimal time this summer at left guard, the position he started at Sunday. Ryan Jensen was making his first career start at center. Six-time Pro Bowl selection Marshal Yanda played all of 10 snaps this preseason after having offseason shoulder surgery. After signing late, right tackle Austin Howard didn’t practice with the team for the first time until about two weeks into training camp and needed to work off some rust and weight when he returned.
The other two offensive linemen who were active Sunday, Tony Bergstrom and Luke Bowanko, were acquired within the past 10 days, moves that weren’t exactly a great endorsement of the backup interior options the Ravens had for much for camp. A week’s worth of practice time apparently was enough for the offensive line to turn in a quality performance against an impressive Bengals front, led by Geno Atkins, who had Cincinnati’s only sack, and ease some of the outside angst about the group protecting Flacco.
“They haven’t played together,” Harbaugh said. “They haven’t been together much as a group, but they’ve been practicing really hard individually. And they practiced as a group the last week or so.”
Flacco did take a few hits, and the offensive line’s performance was marred by penalties on three of the five starters. Jensen was called for three holding penalties, though one was declined. Hurst and Stanley also each got flagged for a false start.
“As far as operation, we had some issues,” Harbaugh said. “We had a couple delay-of-games, a couple false starts. Not really surprised by that. I think it was something we anticipated being an issue going in. The way we were running the offense and the fact they haven't been together. It's something that just needs to improve and should improve.
“I think the false starts and delay of games are operational. We need to get better at that and should get better than that. We're working with an offense that's new to us and a group that hasn't been together, sure. The holding penalties, not really. The holding penalties are technique penalties. That shouldn't happen. I think they were all legitimate calls. We've just got to clean that up and we've got to block better in those situations. We blocked too well throughout the whole game.”
The offensive line set the tempo on the first drive as the Ravens held the ball for 13 plays and for nearly eight minutes. But where it truly took over the game was early in the third quarter, when the Ravens got the ball at their own 12-yard line after Terrell Suggs strip-sacked Dalton.
The Ravens ran the ball on 13 consecutive plays, not counting three Bengals penalties that aided the visitors’ cause. Overall, they kept the ball on the ground for 14 of 17 plays on a drive that covered 81 yards, ate up 9:38 and ended with Justin Tucker kicking a 25-yard field goal for a 20-0 lead.
“The offensive line did an awesome job,” Ravens safety Lardarius Webb said after the game. “They were pounding the ball. They kept the ball almost the whole third quarter. That’s what you want to see. That’s letting you know that you’ve got to take your hats off to the guys up front for that long drive, that impressive drive. But yeah, we love to see when the offense gets on track like that and just moves the ball and keeps the ball a little bit.”
The Ravens ran the ball 42 times, much to the delight of Yanda who spoke candidly last week about the commitment the team was making to establishing the run game. That commitment was questioned too often over the previous two seasons.
Last season, the Ravens’ high for rushing attempts in a game was 34. Sunday’s total was their most since they ran 36 times against the Bengals on Dec.30, 2012.
“It seemed like we did a good job. I don’t know what we ran the ball for, but it felt like we ran the ball effectively,” Yanda said Sunday. “I haven’t seen the stats yet. I just know the defense had five turnovers and we ran the football well and protected Joe. It was fun out there. Obviously, when we get to run the ball, it takes the air out of the defense, it takes the air out of the pass rush. It helps our football team. That’s what we’re there to do: pass block and run game.”
The influence of senior offensive assistant and tight ends coach Greg Roman, who was officially hired in January, was obvious. The Ravens provided quite a few different looks in the run game with an emphasis of getting downhill.
When Gary Kubiak became the offensive coordinator in 2014, the Ravens adopted the wide and stretch zone blocking scheme. It led to much success the first season, but the team was unable to replicate that without Kubiak in 2015 and 2016. The Ravens had one of the worst running games in the league both years.
With offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris and Roman being hired this offseason, the Ravens are now more versatile with their running and blocking schemes.
“There’s a lot of ways to skin a cat,” Harbaugh said. “For our guys, for our backs and kind of for our personality, this is what we want to do right now.”