OWINGS MILLS - The insertion of Bryant McKinnie at left tackle - and the subsequent moves that went along with it - has helped transform the Baltimore Ravens' offensive line into a group that bears little resemblance to the one that too often struggled to neutralize opposing pass rushes during the regular season.
But it was just more than a month ago that the veteran McKinnie sat in the office of Ravens head coach John Harbaugh frustrated by his lack of playing time and eager for an opportunity to help shore up an offensive line that had allowed 15 sacks in the previous five games.
McKinnie started every game at left tackle last season, but he'd been relegated to a reserve role to that point of this year following a tumultuous offseason that included issues with his weight and conditioning as well as a late arrival to training camp after apparently injuring his back in a fall at his South Florida home. There were also his perceived shortcomings as a run blocker and then later a hip flexor injury that limited his mobility in practice during the mid-point of the regular season. The team had also repeatedly voiced confidence in Michael Oher and Kelechi Osemele as its two starting tackles.
But, in spite of all of his issues, McKinnie was still credited for his prowess as a pass blocker. And when the combination of Oher and Osemele continued to struggle in pass protection, McKinnie said he met with Harbaugh the day after the team's Week 15 loss to the Denver Broncos.
"I just told him how badly I wanted to play," McKinnie recalled Thursday. "I just felt like I could help and make a difference, and he was like, 'Just show me at practice.' "
And after seeing his first extensive playing time of the season during Baltimore's regular season finale, McKinnie's started each of the team's three playoff games with Oher moving from left tackle to right tackle and Osemele moving from right tackle to left guard.
The results have been an offensive line that's allowed just four sacks in three postseason games while paving the way for running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce to total a combined 402 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
"It's just clicked," Osemele said of the offensive line in its current state. "I don't know what it is, but ... it's just a good fit. ... We really didn't even have to take many reps before we realized how dominant we could be."
McKinnie's been particularly impressive, especially considering he didn't start a single game during the regular season.
He rendered Dwight Freeney into a non-factor during the Ravens' wild-card win over the Indianapolis Colts. He neutralized Elvis Dumervil amid Baltimore's divisional round win over the Denver Broncos. And, aside from an early sack, he contained Rob Ninkovich, the New England Patriots' top pass rusher, during the Ravens' AFC championship win over the Patriots this past weekend.
He's also fared well as a run blocker.
"He's a large guy," Osemele said with a smile about the 6-foot-8, 354-pound McKinnie. "He's a large guy that can move, and you can't find that that easily in this league. ... On top of that, the experience he has, how strong he is - he's a mauler, man. He's a strong guy. What really can you do when you go against somebody that big and that powerful?"
But the offensive line's playoff success has been about more than just McKinnie.
Oher struggled at left tackle during the regular season, but he's shined at right tackle during the playoffs - both in the running game as well as in pass protection. He's yet to allow a sack in the playoffs after yielding 10 at left tackle during the regular season, which was tied for the most in the AFC among starting tackles according to Pro Football Focus.
The interior of the offensive line, meanwhile, collectively limited Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, one of the NFL's top defensive linemen, to just one tackle this past weekend after leading the way for Rice and Pierce to rush for a combined 171 yards against the Colts and for Rice to accumulate 131 yards against a stout Broncos front seven that allowed an AFC-low 3.6 yards per carry during the regular season.
" I think it's a pretty solid group we have up there right now," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "Bryant's fresh, playing quick and moving well. And obviously, with his stature out there, he's a big, strong guy. ... It gives us five really good talents up there and they're playing well together."
Baltimore faces the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl Feb. 3. The 49ers, fueled by a dominant front seven, ranked second in the NFL in scoring defense during the regular season. They also ranked third in total defense as well as fourth in the league against both the run and the pass.
They have a Pro Bowl defensive end in Justin Smith, two Pro Bowl inside linebackers in Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman and a Pro Bowl outside linebacker in Aldon Smith that recorded 19 ½ sacks during the first 13 games of the regular season.
"I think our line's played pretty good, but we're looking to have our best game on the 3rd, " McKinnie said. "But I feel like we've been pretty good as far as transitioning and everybody changing everything. ... I feel like it's coming together on a pretty positive note. Just looking forward to playing on the dirt and going out here and just putting together a great performance."