Baltimore Ravens

Mike Preston: Dominant offensive line, solid running backs help Ravens pass first test

Ravens running back Lorenzo Taliaferro #34 is tackled by New Orleans Saints defense.

In the first true test of the season, the Ravens passed thanks to a dominant offensive line and a running game that featured three solid running backs.

Fans around here better get used to it. If the Ravens are going to make a strong showing in 2015, the offensive line and running game have to carry this team. The Ravens have one of the most productive quarterbacks in the postseason in Joe Flacco, but they have only one proven receiver in Steve Smith Sr.


At this point of his career, Smith is basically a possession receiver, and so are others such as Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown. The one potential game-breaker, Breshad Perriman, is an unproven rookie and hasn't practiced since the first day of training camp.

So the Ravens have to run, run and run some more. They were able to do that Thursday night against the New Orleans Saints, and that's encouraging.


It's way too early to believe the Ravens will be the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, but at least they took a strong first step Thursday night. Not only was the first offensive line dominant, but so was the second group, as the Ravens rushed for 89 yards in the first half.

"We haven't played a regular football game since January," center Jeremy Zuttah said, "so to start the season with that kind of tempo — even if it is just preseason — it's definitely a good feeling when you have that kind of series where everything seems to be clicking."

Expectations are high. All five starters on the offensive line return for the first time in team history, and the Ravens have a good tandem at the guard positions with Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele.

There was concern at the beginning of training camp about the health of Zuttah (hip), and tackles Eugene Monroe (ankle) and Rick Wagner (foot), but all three looked strong against the Saints even though they played only one series.

But what really makes the offensive line this team's strength is the depth. Once the starters left, the Ravens continued to pound the Saints with second-team tackles James Hurst and Jah Reid and center Ryan Jensen.

A good offensive line can makes average running backs look better, and the Ravens still have to find out about Lorenzo Taliaferro and Buck Allen.

Starter Justin Forsett is proven, having rushed for 1,266 yards on 235 carries in 2014. Taliaferro was productive as a rookie last season, gaining 292 yards on 68 carries, but he was put on the injured-reserve list Dec. 16 after playing in 13 games. Allen is a rookie, a fourth-round NFL draft pick who appeared to be more comfortable catching passes out of the backfield than running the ball.

But all three turned in solid efforts Thursday night, especially Taliaferro, who had 36 yards on 12 carries in the first half. There isn't a speedster among the trio who is going to break off a 70- or 80-yard run, but all three are consistent and will get their share of yards because Yanda and Osemele can make blocks downfield.

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The Ravens could alternate between two of the running backs for three quarters, and then use the third one in the fourth quarter as a closer with fresh legs. They also have Kyle Juszczyk, who can be used as a fullback or as an H-back because of his soft hands.

If there is an area of concern, it would be in short-yardage situations. Juszczyk isn't going to get much movement, either, by smashing into linebackers. He got stuffed by cornerback Brandon Browner on a short-yardage play in the first half Thursday night.

The Ravens also have a good defensive line loaded with potential, but that group is young, led by second-year tackle Timmy Jernigan and rookie Carl Davis. Even the best player on the line, Brandon Williams, is only in his third season.

The Ravens are going to have to rely on a dominant offensive line and hitch a ride on the legs of two or three running backs.

That should be enough to at least carry them to a winning season.