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Through 10 games, Ravens offensive line shows improvement

The Ravens offensive line during the second quarter.
The Ravens offensive line during the second quarter. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Before the Ravens went their separate ways and into the bye week, offensive line coach Juan Castillo held one final meeting. But on this occasion, Castillo didn't want to do the talking.

He wanted to hear from his players. Starting with right guard Marshal Yanda, the most accomplished and veteran member of the offensive line, and going all the way through the reserves, Castillo asked each player on Monday what they felt they needed to work on to be at their best over the Ravens' final six games.

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"We went right down the line and really for me, I listened to what they thought they needed and I know what I think they need, just to make sure that when they come back, I have those drills ready," Castillo said Tuesday. "[I want to] make sure that [practice time] is being used wisely on the things that they need to do to improve and really create consistency. That's the key."

The offensive line remains a work in progress under Castillo, but the significant improvement the group has already made after a disastrous 2013 has given the Ravens a chance as the team tries to return to the playoffs.

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A season after they ranked dead last in yards per carry and 30th in rushing yards per game, the Ravens sit eighth and ninth respectively in those categories. A season after scoring seven rushing touchdowns, the Ravens have 11 in 10 games. And a season after Joe Flacco was sacked 48 times — more than any other quarterback except the Miami Dolphins' Ryan Tannehill — Flacco has been sacked just 14 times. Just four regular starters have been sacked less.

"Two big areas that I know when I came here … needed to be addressed and improved were protecting the quarterback and running the football," said Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. "I think we've made some improvements in those areas, done some good things. Obviously, there are other areas that we've got to improve upon as we move forward, but I think our work's been good.

"We've been [injured] up front some and we played through some of that [and] we're getting healthy again from that standpoint, I think that's a big plus. We can always get better, but I think it's been very positive."

Castillo and the Ravens' offensive linemen understand that consistency has been elusive. Two weeks ago, Flacco was sacked four times in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Like the Steelers, the Tennessee Titans had success early in the game Sunday, blitzing Flacco up the middle. The offensive line has struggled at times on the road and short-yardage situations have been troublesome.

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Center Jeremy Zuttah characterized the offensive line's performance as "up and down."

"There are definitely games where we left a lot of yards out on the field," Zuttah said after Sunday's 21-7 win over the Titans. "We just have to continue to work, continue to get better and start to hit our stride."

Still, the offseason overhaul of the offensive line has clearly been a success. The Ravens re-signed left tackle Eugene Monroe to a contract extension after they got him in a trade from the Jacksonville Jaguars last October. They acquired Zuttah in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in March. They didn't aggressively pursue re-signing Michael Oher or throw money at a veteran replacement, choosing to give Rick Wagner, a fifth-round pick in 2013, the first crack at right tackle. Those moves, coupled by the improved health of Yanda and left guard Kelechi Osemele, have keyed the significant improvement.

"I wouldn't say that I'm satisfied or complacent about what we've accomplished, but I do feel like after having those injuries and guys battling adversity and coming back, that I have confidence in our offensive line," said Osemele, who missed the final nine games last year because of a back injury. "We've pretty much proven that no matter who goes down or who gets banged up, we have guys that are going to step up and be able to play, so that obviously gives us confidence."

Last year, the Ravens rushed for a franchise-low 1,328 yards and averaged just 83 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry. This season, they are averaging 124.1 rushing yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry. With 1,241 rushing yards through 10 games, the Ravens are on pace to finish with 1,985 for the season.

"Any time you win, you're going to have fun. We're having fun," Castillo said. "The guys are working. When I grew up, my mom always told me that when you work hard, good things happen."

After spending 18 seasons as an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles and developing a reputation as one of the game's best offensive line coaches, Castillo joined the Ravens in January 2013. First a consultant and then the run game coordinator last season, Castillo became a lightning rod for criticism with the offensive line's struggles.

Some players groused about Castillo's demanding coaching style. That Andy Moeller, the offensive line coach during the Super Bowl season, remained on the coaching staff created an awkward situation.

But Moeller is now with the Cleveland Browns and the offensive linemen are seemingly far more comfortable with Castillo and have embraced the commitment level he demands.

The offensive linemen go out to the practice field about 30 minutes before many of the offensive and defensive starters and work on fundamentals. Castillo then holds the reserve linemen after practice for an additional 15 minutes to get some more work in. The extra repetitions paid off when undrafted free agent left tackle James Hurst and rookie fifth-round pick John Urschel stepped into the starting lineup when Monroe and Osemele went down and there was little drop off.

"He deserved credit last year as well for the job he did. Juan is a proven coach in this league, so I'm not going to vary at all from what I said last year," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said last week. "I believe he did a great job last year. I said that last year, and he's doing a great job this year. And the results are different, so that's really good. We're happy about that."

Castillo also refuses to discuss last season. He declined to address questions on it multiple times when he spoke to reporters during training camp in August and he did so again Tuesday.

"Really, I'm not talking about 12 months ago," Castillo said. "I'm talking about Rick Wagner doing a great job at right tackle. I'm talking about Marshal Yanda having a Pro Bowl year, the great addition of Jeremy Zuttah. The way [Osemele] finishes every play is incredible. I don't know if there's anybody in the NFL that finishes better than he does. And then how Eugene Monroe is learning to play like a Raven and really the great job the scouting department did in bringing in James Hurst … and then they drafted John Urschel and he came in and he's done a good job. I'd like to talk about that, you know?"

The narrative of the Ravens' offensive line is certainly changing, but Castillo understands that the group has a ways to go yet.

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Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson contributed to this article.

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