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Mike Preston: Ravens are running out of time for the offensive line to come together

August 3, 2017 -- Sports columnist Mike Preston second look at offensive tackle Austin Howard. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)

During the last two days of practice outside linebacker Terrell Suggs had to tell certain offensive players where to line up. On Monday, when Patrick Ricard went in motion as the tight end, it was Suggs who waved him back.

"You're supposed to be right here," said Suggs, pointing to the spot.

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These are tough times for the Ravens' offense, especially on the line. Line play is built around chemistry, consistency and cohesiveness, yet the Ravens have shifted linemen as much as President Donald Trump has changed officials in his administration.

The key question is will this unit be ready on Sept. 10 when the Ravens line up for the season opener in Cincinnati against the Bengals?

"It looks like we have just enough time to get that done," said Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.

It's been a severe case of instability since the end of last season when the Ravens finished with the No. 28 rushing offense in the NFL, averaging just 91.4 yards a game.

The Ravens declined to match the five-year, $47.5 million offer right tackle Rick Wagner received from the Detroit Lions during free agency. Also, in an effort to get bigger, they traded center Jeremy Zuttah to the San Francisco 49ers in March.

But the Ravens still thought they had a lot of the pieces in place. Then John Urschel, who was expected to challenge for the starting center job, retired on the opening day of training camp in late July.

On Aug. 4, the Ravens signed right tackle Austin Howard and he was supposed to challenge James Hurst for the starting job. But the team announced last Friday that starting left guard Alex Lewis was out for the season with a shoulder injury forcing Hurst to move to left guard.

If you are having trouble following what has transpired, it only gets worse. With left tackle Ronnie Stanley out the past two days with an undisclosed absence, Hurst has been playing left tackle with Matt Skura at left guard.

So much for chemistry and consistency. Hurst has started at three different positions in the last five practices.

"James Hurst is a good football player, and he is a versatile football player," Mornhinweg said. "He most likely if asked could play really anywhere across the line. His versatility allows us to make that move with him and Austin.

"They are all good ball players … It comes to them — they are quite natural. It comes to them very quickly. Secondly, it sure is a good thing that we made those adjustments now when we have plenty of time to get this done."

But it is going to be hard. If you look at some of the greatest offensive lines in the history of the NFL — like the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, the Miami Dolphins in the 1970s and the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s — it took years to build them.

Fortunately for the Ravens there are few teams except maybe Pittsburgh, Oakland and Dallas that have great offensive lines. But the Ravens have two players in Hurst and center Ryan Jensen who have been nothing more than stop-gap or fill-in players during their four-year careers.

Stanley, who one day could become one of the best left tackles in the league, is only in his second season. Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and Howard are both coming off shoulder surgeries during the offseason.

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There are other issues like Hurst having to move from right to left. Howard is playing with new teammates and learning a new system with a new quarterback and cadence.

It's hard to get five big bodies working together in unison.

"Even though I didn't participate in team practices, I still was involved in meetings and film study, so it wasn't like I was totally away from the game," Howard said about his time in Oakland before signing with the Ravens.

"This is a process," he said. "John Harbaugh does a great job of getting his guys ready to play and Marty has been outstanding working with me on the playbook and getting me prepared.

"I am getting more comfortable and Marshal Yanda has been a total professional in working with me and I look forward to playing next to him. It might be the best move of my career."

Harbaugh has said he wants the Ravens to be more physical and that actually could happen with Hurst and Howard because they both add more beef to their new positions.

Like most teams, the Ravens could use more depth, but the offense should improve once quarterback Joe Flacco (back injury) returns to the starting lineup. This makeshift line needs more time together and even then there isn't any guarantee for success.

"You look around football, the line plays together — five or six guys play together — pretty much throughout the year, and that way you can stay pretty consistent," Mornhinweg said.

So far that hasn't happened for the Ravens. They've got a long way to go just to become consistent in personnel much less overall talent.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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