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For Juan Castillo and Ravens offensive line, two seasons make a big difference

Nearly two years ago, offensive line coach Juan Castillo was Ravens Public Enemy No. 1.

The team had failed to make the playoffs for the first and only time under coach John Harbaugh, and a lot of fingers were pointed at Castillo because some of his abrupt changes caused dissension among his players and the coaching staff.

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The Ravens avoided talking about the sensitive situation before the start of last season. But the team's offensive line now appears to be in perfect harmony and is one of the NFL's best..

The consensus is that Castillo was too pushy as the first-year run game coordinator in 2013, when the Ravens finished 8-8.

"Juan has really learned about each player and how we respond to coaching a lot, and I feel like he's really doing better with each player," said fourth-year guard Kelechi Osemele. "I think at first, it was kind of a getting-to-know-you type of thing and 'This is how I coach.'

"It was a new place. Now, I feel like he's really comfortable with all the guys and I feel like he's been doing really great with points of emphasis that each guy needs to work on. He's just been a lot more relaxed and a lot more confident and just knows what each individual needs."

One of the Ravens' best moves in the offseason was one they didn't make. After Marc Trestman was hired in January to replace Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator, Harbaugh announced that the running game and the terminology would remain basically the same.

It made sense because the Ravens set single-season franchise records in 2015 by scoring 409 points and producing 5,838 yards, but it also kept Castillo in his comfort zone. Instead of implementing a system, all he had to do was teach.

He wants his linemen to be technicians, not just overpowering brutes. Besides quarterbacks, there might not be a position group that meets more often than offensive linemen. They are the first group on the field and usually one of the last off.

"Yes, he's a hard worker through and through; it's to his core," Osemele said. "He just wants to make sure that he's doing everything that he can to put us in a position to win. We have meetings before everybody else gets started. He just wants to make sure that we're prepared."

It's a player-coach relationship built on trust, developed over time.

"We just look forward now," Castillo said. "The players have to trust you and it takes a little time. They have to know that you know what you're doing, but also that you care about them, that you are real."

"The only way you can find that out is to be around the individual so they can see your actions, what you're about. That's the big thing that is important. I've been around the guys for three years now and they know we're going to work hard, outwork everybody and they know if we improve our technique, we will get better."

The Ravens are putting a lot of stock in the offensive line, and rightfully so. Quarterback Joe Flacco threw for a career high in yards (3,986) and touchdown passes (27) last season, but has only one proven receiver, Steve Smith Sr. Until young receivers like Breshad Perriman, Kamar Aiken, Marlon Brown and tight end Maxx Willaims develop, the running game will have to carry the offense.

In other words, the line has to dominate like a year ago, when they were using the wide zone blocking scheme for the first time under Kubiak.

A key here is that the Ravens' entire starting offensive line from a season ago returns for the first time since the team moved to Baltimore for the 1996 season.

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"I really feel like the sky is really the limit," Osemele said. "We work really well as a group. I feel like we have a lot of chemistry, and coming back with the same offensive line, the communication has been excellent. There [have] even been times where we haven't even had to relay calls because we kind of have that kind of feel with it. And obviously, we have a lot to work on still. It's still early, but I feel really good about the things we can get done."

The Ravens led the league in runs of 20-plus yards (17) last season, but they also got stuffed on a lot of short-yardage running plays because they lacked muscle. The health of tackles Eugene Monroe and Rick Wagner are also a concern. Center Jeremy Zuttah does a good job of getting the Ravens in the right protections, but still struggles against big nose tackles.

The Ravens, though, have excellent guards in Osemele and right guard Marshal Yanda. Both are physical, strong at the point of attack and can make blocks into the second level. Both are extremely nasty.

"There's literally no difference. We feed off each other in the games," Osemele said. "We never really talk about who has the most finishes or knockdowns or anything like that, but I think it is kind of to the point where it is a subconscious thing where we're both trying to one-up each other."

Yanda is hoping this group can meet individual and team expectations.

"It's good to have those expectations, because we should be a good football team every year," Yanda said. "It's nice to know that [in] this organization, we're here to be good, and we're here to get in the playoffs, we're here to win championships."

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