Preston: From the rise of the spread to the CBA, here's why run blocking has become a lost art

On the surface, the solution to any problem seems simple. If the Ravens need to improve their passing game, just replace quarterback Joe Flacco or bring in a receiver like Steve Smith Sr.

Next problem, please?

The Ravens need to improve a running game that is one of the worst in the NFL, so they should just cut Alex Collins and find a replacement.

Right?

Collins has been the target of a lot criticism during the past couple of weeks, but the lack of a running game isn’t just his problem, but a team effort. Collins could be better if his cutback style wasn’t the opposite of what the Ravens want in their downhill, one-cut running game.

But there are also problems on the offensive line, and it’s not just about the Ravens. It’s a league problem. While the NFL has become pass happy, the quality of play on the offensive line has declined, especially in the area of run blocking.

Imagine that.

There are offensive linemen in the NFL who have to be taught how to come out of a three-point stance.

“That was a bit of an adjustment playing in a three-point,” said Ravens rookie offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr., a third-round draft pick out of Oklahoma. “I was used to playing in a two-point [stance] and you could play a little higher that way. I could look across the field and see things, which I can’t do now.

“In some colleges, they don’t play a lot of physical ball, and that physical style from schools like Oklahoma translates over in the NFL. Others who have played in spread offenses, well, that doesn’t translate as well.”

That’s part of the reason the Ravens have the No. 24 ranked rushing offense, averaging 96 yards per game. It takes time to teach and gain rhythm in the running game, unlike in 1960s and 1970s, when a lot of college teams were still running the wishbone or option.

On Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, the Ravens might start two rookies again on the offensive line in Brown on the right side and Bradley Bozeman, a sixth-round pick, at left guard.

If Alex Lewis starts at left guard over Bozeman, the Ravens are still inexperienced up front. Lewis hasn’t played well this season, and he has only started 14 of 16 games during his three-year career, missing the 2017 season with a shoulder injury.

Center Matt Skura, a former free agent signed by the Ravens out of Duke in 2016, is only in his second season as a starter.

Some of these guys won’t start seeing the bulk and results of their efforts in the weight room for another year or two. Meanwhile, the coaching staff has to work through it.

The salary cap has ended the days when teams kept linemen together for years. The Ravens have developed young players, only to lose tackles Michael Oher and Rick Wagner, guard Kelechi Osemele and center Ryan Jensen through free agency.

“In a perfect world, you get a bunch of guys, develop them and allow them to become fixtures,” Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said. “But that’s no longer the case. It used to be teams paid for a left tackle, but now they are paying offensive linemen across the board. It’s hard to keep guys.”

Some teams, such as the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders, invest in their offensive line by using high draft picks to select players. Most teams, though, take skill-position players in the early rounds and supplement the offensive line with middle- to low-round picks.

Then it becomes a mix and match process. Certain schools, such as Alabama, Wisconsin and Iowa, have a reputation for running pro-style offenses that feature power running games.

But most college teams use spread offenses.

“Years ago, some of these mid-level college coaches wanted to compete with the established programs, and they could do that with the spread offense,” DeCosta said. “They would run a lot of plays as fast they could, spread the field and use certain techniques with the offensive line, and not put them in three-point stances.

“Some of the bigger schools, including several in the SEC, saw the success of the mid-level head coaches and adopted it. We started noticing that the skill set, background and techniques had gotten away from what we were traditionally seeing in typical pro-style offensive linemen, and then we had to adapt and make projections. It has become a challenge.”

Another problem has been the collective bargaining agreement. There is a limit to the amount of practice and workout time in the NFL, as well as the amount of contact.

In some ways, run blocking has become a lost art.

“Some of these guys have never been in a three-point stance, some of these guys don’t know about firing off and having the strength behind it. Some of these guys haven’t been in a huddle because their plays were signaled in,” DeCosta said. “Our job is to hopefully find those athletic linemen with the long arms and the skill set who are tough mentally. Along with the training, weight lifting and coaching, we develop a good group.”

Fortunately, the NFL has become as pass happy as college football. NFL teams are running more spread offenses and most teams have some version or package of run-pass options.

The Ravens don’t want a run-oriented offense. They just want more balance and a running game that will help finish off an opponent late in the fourth quarter or at least keep the other team’s offense off the field in the second half.

The Ravens could have used that ball control offense last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.

“I think it starts in practice,” guard Marshal Yanda said. “I think we just have to stay at it. We have to stay committed to it, and I think the guys, we just need to not, obviously, not give up on it, and we just need to keep grinding. Every day in practice, I’m talking about the guys in practice and individually working on our fundamentals and our techniques, and we really feel like that it will come.

“We’re not going to get [discouraged]. We’re not going to overthink it. We’re just going to keep our head down and grind, and we feel like the run game, it will come.”

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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