Ravens offensive line erases doubts while learning new scheme

As remarkable as the demolition of Pittsburgh's proud defense was, the Ravens' offensive success on opening day was noteworthy for another reason: It marked the debut of their new zone blocking scheme.

What had the potential to be a major issue early for the Ravens — their offensive line was in a serious state of flux — instead became a major advantage.

Who knew that new left tackle Bryant McKinnie didn't need any preseason snaps to handle the Steelers' James Harrison and open big holes for running back Ray Rice?

Who knew that center Matt Birk, with maybe five practices on his surgically-repaired left knee, would hold up so well that he didn't even need to drain fluid from that knee later, as he did all last season?

Who knew that Michael Oher would slide over to right tackle as easily as turning over in his sleep and make LaMarr Woodley a faux pass rusher?

"People had so many questions," said Marshal Yanda, who moved from right tackle to guard this summer in the offensive line shuffle. "Everybody was on our [butt] about not playing together, and we just went out there and played well."

Not playing together all preseason wasn't even the biggest part of that question. The fact the Ravens have adopted the zone blocking scheme — made famous by the Denver Broncos a decade ago — put a different spin on their 170-yard gouging of the Steelers.

If they can be this good this early against the Steelers, what's that say about the next 15 games, starting Sunday against the Tennessee Titans?

"They didn't need to play together to go out there and execute the way they did," Rice said about the offensive linemen. "They're a veteran group. … I like to say they're only going to get better. I mean, the sky is the limit for that offensive line. It's been something that [general manager] Ozzie [Newsome] and everyone else around here felt like we needed to patch up and do a few things with. We definitely got it done."

The reconstruction job on the offensive line was completed with the Aug. 24 signing of McKinnie, the seventh pick in the 2002 draft by the Minnesota Vikings. A 6-foot-8, 360-pound anchor, McKinnie's arrival allowed the Ravens to move Oher back to the right side, where he had a standout rookie season two years ago.

McKinnie restored physicality to a line that had been in transition since former Ravens tackle Jared Gaither started having back problems a year ago. In his first eight games against the Steelers, quarterback Joe Flacco had been sacked 29 times. Sunday, behind his new look line, he was sacked once.

McKinnie admitted he "had no clue" how he would play after a very limited training camp. But he at least had a precedent. He missed virtually all his rookie training camp in a holdout, then came in to start in the Vikings' opener in 2002.

"I had to remind myself of that, that I'm capable of doing it," McKinnie said.

The zone blocking scheme, which features the chop block that defenders hate, wasn't new to McKinnie. He played in the system his first four years in Minnesota under coach Mike Tice.

Across the board, the Ravens played down the change in scheme, but it clearly added to the challenge of playing Pittsburgh.

"I wouldn't say it's wholesale change," Birk said, "but sure, it was a big change to what we're trying to do in the run game, and it's something we worked extremely hard at. … We're a long way from being there. I don't think any of us on the offensive line have played in a zone scheme quite this pure, where we feature it as much as we did on Sunday."

Said Oher: "If a zone scheme fits us, we'll do that to the best of our ability. And if it keeps working, we'll keep doing it."

Even though Sunday's starting five linemen didn't play together in preseason games, all but Birk were able to work as a unit the two weeks before the opener. Birk kept up in position meetings.

"I think the reps in practice were critical," Yanda said. "McKinnie's been practicing every practice. He wasn't like, 'Oh, I need a couple reps off.' He's in there every play. He was working hard. Good things happen when you have guys practicing and working hard. And that's what we did."

The opening-day performance came against a team the Ravens know intimately. They won't be nearly as familiar with the Titans.

There is also the uncertain status of left guard Ben Grubbs, nursing an injured big toe. Grubbs has never missed a game in his five-year career. If he can't go, newly-acquired Andre Gurode — a Pro Bowl center with Dallas — would fill in. That's unique depth to have.

In a year when the offensive line looked like a possible weakness, it might turn out to be one of the best in the NFL.

"It's only one game," Yanda cautioned. "We've got 15 more to go, and the playoffs. We'll just keep working. But the potential is there. … We're just going to work at it every week to keep getting better and growing as a team. We're all excited."