If the silver hair wasn’t clue enough, Joe D’Alessandris is in his fourth decade of coaching. The Ravens offensive line coach grew up in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, a former steel town near the Ohio border. He is very much a tough-love coach.
But even he’s having trouble finding much fault in his unit’s execution. After every game, Ravens right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said Wednesday, D’Alessandris runs through the good and the bad. Has there been much bad, though, in a seven-game winning streak defined by name-your-score offensive performances?
“Not too many bad things,” Brown said, smiling, “but still a lot of room to grow.”
There has not been a more eagerly awaited game this season than Sunday’s potential Super Bowl preview: the 9-2 Ravens against the 10-1 San Francisco 49ers. And there might not be a more important matchup at M&T Bank Stadium than the Ravens’ offensive line against the 49ers’ defensive front. It is strength on strength.
Jackson has been sacked just five times in the past six games, and the Ravens rank second in ESPN’s Team Pass Rush Win Rate. Also, they’re a running juggernaut (NFL-best 210.5 yards per game). The 49ers lead the NFL in sacks (44) and have the league’s highest adjusted sack rate, according to Football Outsiders, and highest pressure rate (32.3%), according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Also, they need just the fourth-lowest blitz rate (19.2%) to do it.
Sunday’s game will be won in the trenches, but with less manpower than either team would prefer. Matt Skura, whom coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday had established himself as one of the NFL’s better centers, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Ravens’ 45-6 win Monday night over the Los Angeles Rams. San Francisco defensive end Dee Ford (6½ sacks) missed the 49ers’ Week 12 blowout of the Green Bay Packers with quadriceps and hamstring injuries and did not practice Wednesday.
“We’ve faced some really good fronts up until this point, and these guys coming up, they’re no slouch,” Brown said of a line also starring defensive ends Arik Armstead (10 sacks), Nick Bosa (eight) and DeForest Buckner (5½). “They’re very talented. ... They’ve got a lot of talent. They’ve got a lot of statistics as well, man, as far as I know, guys with a lot of pressures and sacks and all those different things. So we’re going to have our hands full. It’s the NFL. You’re going to have to bring your lunch pail every Sunday, but we’re excited for the battle.”
With Skura out, the Ravens will have a new starter Sunday for the first time all season. But as quarterback Lamar Jackson and the offense scored at will against a Rams defense that had been one of the NFL’s most effective in recent weeks, there was no indication that rookie Patrick Mekari had last played center in a game in high school. The undrafted free agent from California held his own against a line headlined by all-world defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
He had ample help. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley hasn’t allowed a sack all season and rates as the league’s No. 1 pass-blocking tackle, according to Pro Football Focus. Brown is the leading vote-getter in Pro Bowl balloting among AFC tackles, while Yanda is No. 1 at guard. Bradley Bozeman has been mostly solid in his first year starting at left guard.
“They’ve got a really good group of players,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said in a conference call Wednesday with Baltimore-area reporters. “Yanda has been one of the best guards that I’ve seen in my career over these last 10 years. And then all the other guys out there, they’ve got some young guys, and Ronnie Stanley is playing at a very high level, but they all are.”
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s scheme has only amplified their ability. With the Ravens’ reliance on their ground game — they’ve run the ball on over 54% of their offensive plays, one of just three teams above 50% — they often turn aggressive edge rushers into uncomfortable run stoppers.
And run fakes set up effective pass plays. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, the Ravens are tied for first in the number of pass attempts out of run-pass-option plays and tied for sixth in the number of play-action attempts. Not surprisingly, Ravens quarterbacks have been hit just 37 times this season, behind only the Oakland Raiders’ 32.
But the Ravens are Super Bowl favorites because of their brute-force craftsmanship. On Monday, running back Mark Ingram II rushed for 111 yards. Jackson had 95. Edwards added 55. The Ravens’ 285 rushing yards overall were nearly triple what the Rams had allowed per game entering Week 12. Before Jackson got all the headlines, his offensive line helped keep him on the field.
“They did a great job today of being physical and dominating the line of scrimmage, giving Lamar time, giving us holes to run through and space to operate. They gave time for LJ to deliver the ball downfield. Those guys are the best unit in the league,” running back Mark Ingram II said Monday, adding praise for the team’s tight ends and wide receivers. “It’s a team effort. Everybody believes in each other and everybody loves each other. That offensive line is dominant, man. I’m glad that I’m able to take the huddle with those guys.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 45, 5
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM