THE RAVENS had suggested to the national media that their offensive line was going to be physically dominant this season, but maybe the forecast needs to be revised. For now, being just plain efficient might be a better goal.
That's what this group needs to strive for in the 2002 season. There is too much inexperience, too much transition for just about anything else. When the Ravens opened their season Sunday against the Carolina Panthers with a 10-7 loss, they started two second-year guards, Bennie Anderson and Casey Rabach, and a right tackle, Edwin Mulitalo, who had spent the previous three seasons at left guard.
The results weren't pretty.
Jamal Lewis had 64 yards rushing, just 11 in the first half. Chris Redman was sacked twice and smacked around eight other times in 34 attempts. In fact, if the Ravens had played better on the interior line, they might have won because the other offensive units performed reasonably well.
The problem was that the Ravens couldn't handle the games inside the game. Give Panthers defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio credit. He knew Redman couldn't beat the Panthers from outside the pocket, so he sent pressure up the middle.
The Panthers twisted, stunted and blitzed up front, which caused a lot of confusion. The Ravens didn't figure it out until the second half, and then the unit played much better.
But guess what?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will see the game film, and the Bucs will play just as many games. Only this time, the defensive tackles will be better. Tampa Bay starts Warren Sapp and Anthony McFarland. There isn't much of a learning curve for the Ravens. If the Ravens can just become efficient on the offensive line and get Lewis loose, life would be a lot easier for Redman, the defense and the team for the rest of the season.
It's a big key.
"In this league, I don't know if an offensive line can be dominant anymore," said Jim Colletto, the Ravens' offensive line coach. "I think we'll be able to compete, but we have to become consistent in areas such as defensive recognition, and not make errors."
In other words, recognize the games and then react. That usually comes with time and with playing together. On Sunday, Rabach needed a road map in the first quarter. He admitted he was lost. Instead of attacking, he was getting attacked, and the Panthers were penetrating into the backfield.
"I think it was the atmosphere, the nerves thing, because I didn't know what to expect," said Rabach, who was making his first NFL start. "It was a little rocky in the first quarter, but I found my groove after that and I did all right. We didn't see a lot of those twists in the preseason."
Colletto said: "Rabach is like Chris Redman. He got better as the game went on, but he needed time to adjust to the speed and tempo of the game. He is a smart guy, and he doesn't make a lot of mental mistakes."
The experiment with Mulitalo is going to take some time. If it doesn't work, the Ravens don't have another option. Mulitalo started strongly but fell back on bad habits as the game progressed. He got sloppy with his technique. He got overextended, and his hands became slow.
On the Ravens' final offensive play, Mulitalo stepped one way when he should have stepped the other. Redman was pressured, the ball was tipped into the air and linebacker Dan Morgan intercepted to secure the Panthers' victory with 79 seconds remaining.
End of game, but not the end of Mulitalo.
"Edwin competed hard, which he always does," Colletto said. "But he is finding out at tackle that you get exposed more than at guard. He doesn't have that luxury of having someone next to you where a player can beat you and he bumps into someone else. He has to understand that his technique has to keep getting better all the time."
Anderson wasn't great, but he wasn't poor. He turned in his usual solid effort, which is good because he doesn't have a full year of experience as a starter, either. But Anderson still has to work on his quickness and foot speed. He's very good at run blocking but needs to improve on pass protection.
The only standout on the unit is left tackle Jonathan Ogden, one of the best in the league. This season he has a new role as both player and mentor. He has been working with Rabach and Mulitalo.
"To be physical, that's where we want to be, that's what we're working toward," Rabach said. "I'm comfortable with J.O. and [center] Mike Flynn on both sides, and we're making progress."
The Bucs love to play games. Sapp sometimes will charge wide outside, only to have end Simeon Rice come underneath. But Tampa Bay allowed 118 yards rushing in a 26-20 overtime loss to New Orleans on Sunday.
Now, if only the Ravens' offensive line can become more efficient ...
"I don't think we were terrible, but we didn't play good enough to win," Ogden said. "We did some things well, had drives, and then they stalled. I think we can become a physical offensive line. How? I'm not exactly sure yet."