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Mike Preston: If Ravens want respectable finish, offensive line needs to get healthy

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about the need for all areas of the Ravens' game to improve even more including the offense. He also discusses Joe Flacco's efforts. (Edward Lee, Baltimore Sun video)

As the Ravens were beating the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night, the chances for a strong finish in 2016 were starting to diminish with each offensive lineman who headed to the bench with an injury.

On one play, it was rookie left guard Alex Lewis. On another, it was center Jeremy Zuttah. On another, it was left tackle Ronnie Stanley. Fortunately, the Ravens had enough to finish that game, but what about the next one Sunday in Dallas?

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Will this group be healthy and effective enough to finish the year?

The Ravens appear to be in trouble. Their best offensive lineman, right guard Marshal Yanda, has missed three of the last four games with a shoulder injury, and even if he returns he won't be 100 percent the rest of the season. Coach John Harbaugh was mum about his status Monday.

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Harbaugh did say that Lewis left Thursday's game with a high-ankle sprain, which "is usually a six-week injury."

There are numerous reasons why the Ravens (5-4) have struggled this season, but the two majors ones are the poor play of quarterback Joe Flacco and the offensive line. They go hand and hand.

Flacco has thrown for 2,374 yards this season but his quarterback rating of 78.3 puts him in the same class with Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brock Osweiler. The Ravens have allowed 20 sacks but Flacco has been hit or hurried on numerous occasions in the worst beating of a Baltimore quarterback since Kyle Boller.

Flacco is to blame for some of his problems. His mechanics have been poor and he doesn't help himself by not stepping up in the pocket or to the side to avoid pressure. Injuries have also forced the Ravens to shuffle their offensive line like a deck of cards.

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A year ago this group wasn't that good, but it hasn't had much of a chance to gain rhythm this season. The Ravens weren't going to be dominant anyway, but now it is about being respectable.

The Ravens are ranked 24th in the NFL in points (20.2 per game), 25th in yards (333 per game) and 28th in rushing with an average of 85.9. In three of their next seven games, the Ravens play against pretty respectable defenses in Dallas, Philadelphia and New England, and both Cincinnati and Miami have strong defensive lines.

On defense, the Cowboys are ranked No. 12 in yards allowed (345.7 per game) and No. 8 in points (18.9). The Cowboys have collected 18 sacks.

On the flip side with the Ravens, you wonder how much better they can get on offense. They have ample weapons in receivers Steve Smith Sr. and Mike Wallace and Flacco is tough to beat if he gets hot, but it's hard to have a productive passing game if the running game isn't working and Flacco is throwing from his back.

Ravens running backs Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon rushed for more than 100 yards combined against Cleveland on Thursday night, but that's false hope. The Browns can't beat anybody but themselves.

With Yanda out, the Ravens are missing one of the league's best guards. Lewis' injury takes away another guard.

Asked if Lewis will go on injured reserve, Harbaugh said, "There's nothing imminent along those lines. We're going to try to see where that goes in the next couple weeks. Hopefully we can get him back."

And Yanda's status moving forward?

"We'll let you know as we go, see how he progresses," Harbaugh said.

Zuttah has struggled the entire year, partly because of shoulder and neck ailments. Stanley has performed poorly in his last two starts, struggling with technique and slow feet. With seven games remaining, has he hit the proverbial wall that so many rookies crash into late in the season?

The Ravens' most dependable offensive lineman has been right tackle Rick Wagner, but the anchor of the line shouldn't be an average player. The Ravens thought they had depth on this unit at the beginning of the season, but reserves such as tackle James Hurst and guard/center Ryan Jensen have been disappointing.

A good offensive line can mask a lot of problems. It can hide its own sorry defense with a dominating running game and at the same time wear down the opposition. It can make an average bunch of skill players look better, and there is nothing more demoralizing in the sport than when an opponent has one of those 11-, 12-, or 13-play drives consisting of smashmouth football.

Ravens starting right guard Marshal Yanda is not expected to play Thursday night against the Cleveland Browns because of a shoulder injury.

In the pass-happy NFL, every team still wants to be able to run the ball.

With the Ravens, that's not the major goal right now. They need to get healthy. They need to find a rhythm.

They need to do it quickly.

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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