Joe D’Alessandris is the perfect man for a very complex job.
As a Ravens assistant coach, he has to build the offensive line, which isn’t a typical group. The Ravens have a sophisticated, yet complicated blocking scheme, and only someone with experience and patience can handle the job.
You have to be part teacher, part scientist and a pain in the butt.
Meet D’Alessandris. He is all of those wrapped up in one package.
“We go back to the San Diego Chargers days,” said veteran guard D.J. Fluker, who signed with the Ravens during the offseason but played for D’Alessandris in San Diego. “It’s been fun. He hasn’t changed a bit. He’s always on guys about working hard, playing their tails off, five equals one, guys going in there and playing physical. That’s been his mentality since Day One when he drafted me in San Diego. Being here, it’s the same way — nothing has changed. It’s been great.”
A year ago, the Ravens had the most productive running game in the history of the NFL as they set a single-season record with 3,296 rushing yards. They went out in the offseason and brought in more weapons to complement quarterback Lamar Jackson, adding rookies such as running back J.K. Dobbins, offensive linemen Ben Bredeson and Tyre Phillips and wide receiver Devin Duvernay.
But if the offensive line isn’t in rhythm, little will work. The Ravens return two top young offensive tackles from a year ago in Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr., but the interior has to be strengthened, especially at right guard, after future Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda retired.
The job wouldn’t be so difficult if the Ravens had several offseason mini-camps, if training camp had started on time and if the blocking scheme weren’t so complex. You can’t be a dummy and play on this offensive line. There are a lot of keys and reads. At times, it seems as if an offensive tackle has to go through as many progressions and reads as a quarterback.
The option plays take a lot of coordination.
“On certain plays they [tackles] have to have an awareness if they are on the open side or closed side, which is when the tight end is next to them,” D’Alessandris said. “So, we try to have them read and see, then get great communication from center. We try to incorporate as fast as we can, try to get everyone on the same page, so everyone is locked in and knows where we are going to go and what everybody is going to do. And sometimes those tackles have to make adjustments on their own before the snap.”
It’s confusing, but that’s why it’s fun watching D’Alessandris coach. At 66, most of the time he has the approach of an elderly college professor. But he teaches offensive line play like it is rocket science because every aspect is broken down.
As long as you understand and are making progress, he’s the perfect tutor. But there is tough love, especially when you aren’t physical.
With this year’s group, the key word is patience. D’Alessandris is working different combinations to find a starting lineup. He has four regulars in Stanley at left tackle, Brown at right tackle, Bradley Bozeman at left guard and Patrick Mekari at center, but Matt Skura could be the starting center when the regular season begins.
As for Yanda’s replacement, Fluker has been working with the starting unit with Phillips as his backup.
“We’re just breaking the ice right now, D’Alessandris said. “Each guy is just getting a little bit more familiar with his position and the technique and the fundamentals involved. So, right now we’re in the growth pattern. It’s encouraging though because we see good growth in all of the guys.
“We just need to be diligent as far as staying precise with our fundamentals, teachings and communication. We have to stay with the task at hand. I’ve been fortunate enough to be exposed to quite a few offenses over time; zones, power, gap schemes, pivot pools — all of those kinds of schemes. We have a variety of offensive run plays and pass protections, and we’ll build that all up together. We try to fit it all as a puzzle for us.”
Fluker, at 6-feet-5 and 342 pounds, could be a big piece. He has a powerful punch and will be an asset in the running game. He lost weight and redefined his body before training camp started. Skura was the starter last season and performed well until a knee injury forced him out of the lineup in Week 12.
Phillips, a rookie out of Mississippi State, needs more work. According to D’Alessandris, Phillips hasn’t been in a three-point stance since he played in the recreation leagues. That’s a major problem for college offensive linemen, who usually operate out of a two-point stance.
“You start having them bend ankles, knees and hips and different parts of bodies start getting sore because they haven’t been used in the past,” D’Alessandris said.
“I think with ‘Fluke’ he is a willing, willing young man,” he said. “He will work. He’s a big, imposing, physical body. Now, we’re trying to channel that physicality in all his fundamentals and technique, and again, try to develop those skills and get him up to speed with quickness, changing direction and those things. He’s working diligently at it, so that’s a plus.”
It appears to be coming together. Others might want it to happen to faster, but D’Alessandris appears comfortable and content. He has to find more depth and has been getting other linemen, such as tackles Sean Pollard and Will Holden and guard Ben Powers, playing time. This is the second year in coordinator Greg Roman’s offense, and the fourth with his running scheme.
If the Ravens offense can get close to where they were last season and improve on their pass protection, they’ll again challenge for the AFC title. That would make D’Alessandris happy, which might allow him to have a little more free time cycling and preparing Italian dishes for his family.
He might even have the offensive line over for dinner.
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“It takes reps, takes time and a lot of teaching,” D’Alessandris said. “We have guys who have been in the system and understand it, and the younger guys now learn from those veterans. They say a picture is better than a thousand words, so that helps too. I’m very confident in this group.”