After 12 years and a list of injuries longer than one of his beefy arms, you could forgive Marshal Yanda if he didn’t itch to get back to the game that’s battered every corner of his frame.
But here’s the two-time All-Pro guard’s take on how he feels to be banging bodies after a 2017 season in which he lost the last 14 games to an ankle injury: “I’m grateful to be back and playing and being a part of it, because, obviously, I missed it a lot last year. I love this game. I love competing.”
Yanda distanced himself from football as he recovered last fall. He tried to keep up with the Ravens on television a few times — too unsettling.
“It was tough to watch. It just pissed me off,” he said, as he pulled on a pair of headphones in the locker room this week.
On Sunday mornings, he took his family to breakfast and steered his mind to other subjects. The one game he attended, the team’s season-ending loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, proved to be a miserable experience.
“It was just so hard being around that environment when you’re not part of it,” he recalled.
At age 34, Yanda remains a player’s player — ready to mentor young linemen, concerned about the team’s narrative more than his own, still one of the finest guards in the league despite the various maladies that have knocked him down over the years.
He’s acknowledged that he’ll have to assess his long-term future every offseason going forward. But for now, as long as he’s fit to play football, that’s what he wants to do.
Yanda has been the chief source of stability for a Ravens offensive line that’s again beset by injuries. Starting tackles Ronnie Stanley and James Hurst both missed the team’s Week 9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Meanwhile, left guard Alex Lewis has struggled to live up to the franchise’s high expectations.
For a game or two at the start of this season, it seemed Yanda might fail to regain his accustomed status as one of the best linemen in football. He was coming back not just from the busted ankle but from a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. He had missed the entire preseason and seemed to lack his usual explosion off the line. His worst performance came against Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins, the same guy he’ll try to block in Sunday’s must-win game at M&T Bank Stadium.
But as the weeks rolled on, Yanda’s grades on the scouting website, Pro Football Focus, rose steadily. He now ranks as the fourth-best guard in the league and as the Ravens’ best run blocker and second-best pass blocker.
Nothing he’s done has generated much buzz, partially because he’s a guard and partially because the Ravens are so used to watching him rebound from every career setback.
Asked if everyone takes Yanda for granted, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said: “We do! Marshal has been playing for a long time. He’s not a rookie. He’s been through a lot, come off some injuries the last couple years, rehabbed really well, and I would say, yes, is playing at his customary high level. I’m really happy that we have him out there. He’s a difference-maker.”
Yanda’s fine with the lack of gushing. You have a better chance of beating him for a sack than of getting him to talk about his individual performance during the season.
But teammates always seem happy to fill the quote vacuum. No player on the roster is more respected. And it’s always interesting to talk with rookie offensive linemen about their experiences with the six-time Pro Bowl selection.
“He’s really good, man,” said first-year right tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who’s started beside Yanda the last three games. “What a lot of people don’t see is the communication and football knowledge that he brings to help me out and help me play a great game. He’s somebody in the meeting room that we all look to for answers. He’s been a big part of helping me come on as a player.”
Brown would like to think he’ll be as passionate about football in 12 years as Yanda is now.
“He’s working even harder than he did, from what I hear,” the rookie said. “He’s somebody on this team that I think we all look up to — a pro’s pro. He does everything the right way, never complains. Twelve years down the road? I’d like to think I’ll be in his shoes.”
After losing Yanda and Lewis in 2017, the Ravens finally had a stable, healthy offensive line through the early weeks of this season, and it showed in the quality of their pass blocking. Yanda acknowledged that it’s no fun being back to the old, unsettled state given the injuries to Ronnie Stanley and James Hurst.
But he offered a veteran’s perspective: “It’s adversity. And obviously, it’s football, and getting injured is 100-percent part of this game. It’s a 100-percent injury rate, so you have to find a way to fight through that. Is it frustrating? Yes. But, there are no excuses; it’s the next guy up, and we have to prepare to have those guys step up and play.”
Beyond such immediate concerns, Yanda is one of several staples on the Ravens’ roster who could be nearing the close of their time in Baltimore if the team continues its slide and shifts to a full rebuild. His contract ends after next season.
But he’s not up for discussing his own big picture.
“Not right now, no. I’m just taking care of today,” Yanda said. “These things, there are so many moving parts during the season, and controlling what you can control [is most important]. Right now, I just focus on playing good football, productive football, and try not to … Big-picture stuff, you’ll worry about that after the season, or obviously, if we do well enough and we get into the playoffs, we go towards that part. But right now, everybody’s eyes are on Cincinnati, and that’s where they should be.”
For the offensive line, that means a shot at redeeming one of their worst performances of the season in a 34-23 road loss to the Bengals. For Yanda, it means a reckoning with Atkins, a player he’s said gives him as much trouble as anyone in the sport.
“Geno does a really good job of being a bull rusher, of taking the inside move, taking the outside move; he has all three traits as pass rusher,” Yanda said, donning his football clinician’s hat. “Usually, a defensive tackle is either super good with the bull [rush], and he’s not so good with edges and side-to-side lateral quickness. Geno has a good blend of all of that. He can run you over. He can take the inside move. He has the lateral quickness and the super, bull-rush strength. So, those things, and he also does a good job of reading the player. Some guys have a move in their mind. Say I’m going to do an outside spin move on this guy on this next move. Geno does a good job of reading what the offensive lineman is doing to him, and he kind of takes what you give him.”
Not stated, but obvious from his answer, is that Yanda has spent countless hours studying Atkins so he’ll be a step ahead this time.
It’s what he loves to do.