Carroll County Times

Ravens' shuffled offensive line continues to impress

OWINGS MILLS - Bryant McKinnie consistently mirrored Elvis Dumervil through every stage of his pass rush. Michael Oher neutralized Von Miller, one of the league's best and most explosive pass rushers. And the combination of Matt Birk, Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele limited the impact of a talented group of Denver Broncos interior pass rushers.

And, collectively, the unit paved the way for Ray Rice to rush for 131 yards and a touchdown versus a Broncos defense that had allowed a league-low 3.6 yards per carry during the regular season.

It was the second straight impressive showing for the Baltimore Ravens' shuffled offensive line.

A week earlier, the line yielded just one sack in the Ravens' wild-card win against the Indianapolis Colts while also creating pathways for Rice and Bernard Pierce to rush for a combined 173 yards on the ground. Against Denver Saturday, the offensive line led the way for Baltimore's offense to gain 479 yards against what was the NFL's No. 2 rated defense during the regular season.

"Our offensive line, they are the heart of our team," Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "They like to give the quarterbacks, the receivers and the running backs all of the credit, but if it wasn't for those guys, we wouldn't have anything. When they play well, we go well."

And behind the offensive line Saturday, Baltimore's offense scored four touchdowns against a Broncos defense that hadn't allowed more than 23 points in a game since mid-October.

Denver's dangerous pass rushing tandem of Miller and Dumervil was kept at bay by the combination of McKinnie and Oher, and Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco capitalized by throwing for 331 yards and three scores in leading Baltimore to a dramatic 38-35 double overtime victory.

According to Pro Football Focus, McKinnie and Oher allowed just two combined quarterback hurries facing a tandem of Miller and Dumervil that combined for 29½ sacks during the regular season.

Miller and Dumervil combined for a sack in the first overtime, but it was more of a coverage sack as Flacco was forced to hold onto the ball for an extended period of time with none of his receivers open downfield.

"They did great today," Flacco said of the offensive line after the game. "I can't say enough about our offensive line. They kept guys off me all day, and that is a good pass-rushing football team."

Added McKinnie: "The offensive line did a great job. With the rearrangement just a week ago, everyone's just being professional and just doing their job. It was just great how it turned out [Saturday]."

McKinnie has started at left tackle each of the last two games after being relegated to a reserve role during the regular season - with Oher moving from left tackle to right tackle and Osemele shifting inside from right tackle to left guard.

And after struggling in pass protection at times during the regular season - yielding 38 sacks - the offensive line has given up just two sacks in its two games within its current configuration.

McKinnie hasn't allowed a sack in either of the last two games and - while critiqued in the past for his deficiencies as a run blocker - has been commended for the push he's generated in the running game the last two weeks.

"Bryant has played well," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "It's been a season in the making for him. Sometimes things work out the way that they work out. You don't necessarily see them coming all the time. He's been working hard all year, and he's moving well. That's the key - he's healthy and he's moving well.

"He's been a big factor for us on the offensive line. I'm really happy with the way he's been playing."

But it's about more than just McKinnie.

Yanda was asked if the offensive line as a whole is playing at its highest level of the season.

"Yeah, I think so," Yanda said. "We had a big test [against Denver], and we gave up one sack and kept Joe [Flacco] pretty clean. Obviously, that's a huge part of what we try to do every week. If we can get that done, Joe can really put the ball down the field.

"I think it's a great job by everybody across the board. ... They had only one sack on us, which is great. I'm excited."

Baltimore travels to face the New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC championship game.

The offensive line will be matched against a New England defense, led by massive nose tackle Vince Wilfork, that limited opposing ball-carriers to an average of just 3.9 yards per carry during the regular season. The Patriots ranked just 15th out of the NFL's 32 teams in sacks, but they had eight players record multiple sacks, including defensive end Rob Ninkovich who had a team-high eight.

"They've played well as a group, and they've made big plays when they've needed them," Yanda said. "It's another test for us and, obviously, we understand what we have to get done."