Maybe this offseason the Ravens finally start building their offense from the inside out.
They’ve gotten away from “Football 101″ the past three years while being carried away by the Lamar Jackson phenomenon. Instead of acquiring quality offensive linemen, they went with flash and drafted skilled players like Rashod Bateman, James Proche II, Devin Duvernay and J.K. Dobbins.
I get it. They went pretty. They also needed to sell tickets, and nothing puts fans in the seats faster than a star quarterback and a high-powered offense. But you see where that has gotten the Ravens the past three years. They lost in the divisional round two seasons in a row and failed to make the playoffs in 2021.
Now the Ravens appear ready to go old school. It’s great to have playmakers, which the Ravens still lack, but grunt guys win games. The Ravens need an influx of young talent on the defensive line, but their main priority should be finding offensive linemen.
“I think it’s critically important,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “To me, the offensive line is really, really important. It’s the basis … I believed that in 2008; I believed that when my dad told me that, probably, in about 1972. You win and lose in the trenches, and that’s where it starts. Yes, you’ve got to have playmakers, the quarterbacks are kind of important — you’re seeing that this weekend — but no skill player can do anything without the lines in front of them doing that work. So, to me, and in our offense especially, it’s just critically important that we have a really good offensive line.”
Hopefully, the Ravens don’t continue to get lost in their own philosophy. Because the offense is so run-oriented, they keep signing or drafting top-heavy linemen who are one-dimensional. But the Ravens should go back and look into their brief history. The team’s best linemen were left tackle Jonathan Ogden and guard Marshal Yanda, players who excelled at both run and pass blocking.
It’s OK to be run-oriented in the regular season because there is a mix of good, poor and average opponents to beat, but it’s different in the postseason. The Ravens have to face quarterbacks like the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen, Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow and Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, all of whom lead high-scoring offenses.
When the Ravens fall behind, that significantly decreases their chances of winning. They need versatile linemen who can run and pass block, but also trap, get out front in screens and make blocks deep into the second level. The Ravens have to get outside of the box they built around themselves.
They have 10 draft picks in April, including No. 14 overall. There are a lot of versatile linemen in this class who can play almost anywhere, including Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum, North Carolina State tackle Ikem Ekwonu, Mississippi State tackle/guard Charles Cross and Texas A&M guard Kenyon Green.
The Ravens had a strong running game again this season, but even Harbaugh admits that a lot of those yards came on quarterback scrambles, busted plays or designed runs by Jackson or backup Tyler Huntley.
“Our called run game wasn’t as good this year as it’s been the last couple of years,” Harbaugh said. “Our called run game was the best in history in 2019 and 2020, and this year, it just wasn’t. Now, our run game is pretty good statistically, but it was mostly scramble yards. So, you can credit Lamar for that. You give credit to Tyler for that.”
And then there were the sacks. Jackson was sacked a career-high 38 times and the Ravens allowed 57 for the season, part of the reason they ranked No. 6 in total yards but No. 17 in scoring. The Ravens never found an offensive rhythm, regardless if it was because of Jackson, injuries, penalties or receivers running bad routes.
But one thing is certain: This offensive line couldn’t pass block, and Jackson took a lot of punishment.
“We had too many hurries, too many sacks, which kind of negated some of our scramble yards,” Harbaugh said.
In a sense, Harbaugh is limited in what he can do. He can make his opinion known and have input in the draft, but general manager Eric DeCosta needs to have a strong offseason, especially finding offensive linemen. He was 1-for-2 in offseason additions last year, signing right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Alejandro Villanueva.
Zeitler had a strong season, maybe the best among any of the starters, but Villanueva was a liability. He couldn’t bend and had problems with speed rushers or any players who could change directions quickly. The Ravens also have to make a decision on unrestricted free-agent center Bradley Bozeman, who had a solid year but needs to work on snapping in the shotgun formation.
The Ravens had a three-player rotation at left guard, which means they weren’t satisfied with the overall play of either Ben Powers, Ben Cleveland or Tyre Phillips. Ronnie Stanley will be the starting left tackle if he decides to take the offseason rehabilitation program seriously and improves the re-injured ankle that cost him 16 games in 2021.
“That’s where we’re going to go to work on the next couple weeks and you do that based around the players that you have,” Harbaugh said. “We know who our quarterback is going to be. We know who certain pieces are going to be, but where are we going with our running backs? Where are we going with our offensive line in terms of building that? Can we add a tight end or not? Do we need to add a receiver or not? Those are the things that we’ll be looking at.”
The offensive line deserves the hardest look.