At the beginning of the season, the key to success for the Ravens was the development of the offensive line. Now, near the end of the season, the key for their postseason hopes is for the offensive line to take its game to a higher level.
When the Ravens meet the Dallas Cowboys tomorrow night in the last game at Texas Stadium, they will face the best defensive line they have seen this season.
Pittsburgh has the No. 1-rated defense in the NFL, but the Steelers don't have the combination of strength and speed that the Cowboys have up front, beginning with All-World outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and nose guard Jay Ratliff.
Usually, the Ravens play a team with one great defensive lineman/outside linebacker, like Pittsburgh's James Harrison. You can focus on him and turn your protection toward him.
You can double-team Ware, but who is going to single-block Ratliff or outside linebacker Greg Ellis?
"We've got to protect our quarterback," Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "That's basically what it boils down to. This is a front four that is very good. I think Ellis has, what, [7 1/2 ] sacks? Ware is right at the top in sacks, as well [with 19]. I think they have two or three Pro Bowlers in that front four.
"So, this is probably the best defensive line that we'll face all season. But this is probably the best offensive line they're going to face all season, so ... it's going to be a sight to see - their four against our five. I'll take our five."
Maybe Mason didn't see the game film from the Cowboys' 20-8 win over the defending Super Bowl New York Giants on Sunday night. By most accounts, New York has the best offensive line in the NFL. But the Cowboys sacked Eli Manning eight times.
"Well, I don't know if it's tougher than what we saw last week; pass rush-wise, it's every bit as tough," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in comparing the Cowboys to the Steelers. "The Cowboys have one of the best pass rushes in football. It's a little different type of a scheme. Same basic front, though, same type of talent, and that's going to be a big priority for us. If we can protect the quarterback, then we'll have a chance to throw the ball."
For the most part, the Ravens have done a good job of protecting quarterback Joe Flacco, who has been sacked just 25 times. But the protection has come at the expense of options in the passing game, because the Ravens have had to use running backs and tight ends to get maximum blocking.
Against the Steelers on Sunday, it was laughable at times when the Ravens sent out only two receivers against the best defense in the NFL. It will be interesting to see how the Ravens attempt to handle the Cowboys' pass rush.
It all begins with Ware. His sack total this season puts him in the same class as guys like Reggie White, Bruce Smith, Michael Strahan and Lawrence Taylor. Ware is as big as most defensive ends and just as fast as most outside linebackers.
The Cowboys usually start him on the right side, but he'll be on the left, too. Ware is a distraction. He is the player opposing teams game plan against.
Ratliff is tied with Ellis with seven sacks, but he also has forced the quarterback to move 28 times this season. He is a pocket pusher and requires double teams. Ellis is like Ware. He can bring pressure as an outside linebacker or a defensive end. Ellis and defensive end Marcus Spears are interchangeable.
They are both nightmares.
"They're playing well, and they're starting to get into a roll," Flacco said of the Cowboys. "Our offensive line has been playing great all year. I think last week they did a good job against the Steelers' rush, and this week we expect them to do the same."
Dallas is impressive against the run, as well. The Cowboys are allowing only 93.1 yards a game. Their scheme is predicated on ends Chris Canty and Spears holding up the tackles and letting their outside linebackers make the stops.
It's a tough assignment for the Ravens. Their passing game is built on play action, and when they can't run, they can't pass. Flacco has struggled the past two weeks. Against Pittsburgh, he was sacked twice, intercepted twice and lost one fumble. The Cowboys might not be as big as the Steelers, but they are faster.
Overall, it has been a good year for the Ravens' offensive line. It's a young group that has developed enough to get the team to the brink of the playoffs.
Now, the group has to take the next step.
"We've got our work cut out for us," Ravens center Jason Brown said. "They're very athletic, tough and mobile. It's a challenge, but as an offensive line, we look forward to the challenge."
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