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Mike Preston: Ravens are in trouble if offensive line doesn’t improve | COMMENTARY

"He's here. He was in the building today," said Harbaugh when asked about QB Lamar Jackson. "He had to do some things with testing and whatever else."

It’s no longer a matter of when the Ravens offensive line becomes a cohesive unit, but if it happens at all.

Training camp is a time for NFL teams to find answers to questions, but after 10 days the Ravens’ offensive line has emerged as the team’s biggest weakness. As for finding the right fits, there have been more misfits.

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The offensive line has been a revolving door of players that show some versatility, but at the same time it’s an indication of the lack of quality starters.

The Ravens wrapped up the third day of padded practices Friday, and the offensive production has been poor and the line play even worse. It’s hard to believe that the Ravens had the top rushing game in the league the last two seasons.

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Fortunately, the Ravens have time on their side and an offensive system which has been in place for three or four years. Besides moving so many linemen around, the team has also been without injured receivers Rashod Bateman, Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin for extended periods as well as quarterback Lamar Jackson and running back Gus Edwards, both of whom tested positive for COVID-19.

But it’s the individual showings by some of these offensive linemen that has been disappointing. Starting right offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, the seven-year veteran who previously played with the Pittsburgh Steelers before the Ravens signed him in May, has been stiff, slow and getting beat regularly by speed rushers to the outside. Almost the same can be said for rookie Ben Cleveland who has been sharing time at left guard with Ben Powers and Tyre Phillips.

Phillips, in his second year, has had his moments (more bad than good) while Powers and center Bradley Bozeman have been steady but far from spectacular. Maybe the most disappointing of all the linemen has been tackle Andre Smith, who is showing all the signs of player who has been in the league too long following a 12-year career.

This group has no rhythm and has been getting beat consistently in practice. It’s not just in one-on-one matchups against the run but pass protection as well. Quarterbacks Tyler Huntley and Trace McSorley have had little time to throw without pressure, and there seems to be a free rusher coming in on every passing down.

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Defenses are usually ahead of offenses early in the season, and defensive coordinator Don Martindale hasn’t had any mercy dialing up blitzes and pressure. The Ravens also have one of the better defenses in the league led by veteran ends Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe and nose guard Brandon Williams.

The Ravens have been without starting right guard Kevin Zeitler for three days because of a foot injury, but even he was struggling with Campbell, the most dominant player so far in training camp. The line will improve if starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley returns completely healthy from major ankle surgery last season, but Stanley can’t play his position, left guard and right tackle.

And what if he isn’t fully healthy?

Finding a quality and proven tackle isn’t easy after training camps open. Perhaps the best backup tackle on the roster is the undersized Patrick Mekari (6-4, 308), who is better at both the guard and center positions.

“We’re doing that because we have some needs right now, so we have to give him some work there,” Ravens offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris said of Mekari at tackle. “Hopefully, it’s going to help us down the road, if we need him in that position.”

The return of Jackson will help. He always makes the offensive line look better than it really is because of his ability to escape and improvise. Huntley has similar abilities to get out of trouble, but there is only one Jackson. One of the team’s two major focuses this season, besides improving the pass rush, was to upgrade the passing game, but it looks like Jackson will rush for more than 1,000 yards again this season.

That’s the reality right now. The receiving corps was upgraded and certainly better than a year ago with the free agent signing of Sammy Watkins, the drafting of rookies Bateman, Tylan Wallace and the development of young players such as Brown, James Proche II and Devin Duvernay.

But as much as trends come and go in the NFL, there is one constant: If you can’t win at the line of scrimmage, you’re not going to win many contests, especially big games.

Just ask the Kansas City Chiefs, whose offense was dismantled in the Super Bowl because Tampa Bay dominated the offensive line.

The Ravens are in a similar mess.

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