Ravens left guard Alex Lewis said he felt “good” Wednesday, only to be limited in practice. Right tackle James Hurst, absent along with Lewis for Sunday’s loss to the New Orleans Saints, made the same declaration. He didn’t practice at all. Guard-center Bradley Bozeman sat out the workout, too.
As the Ravens offensive line finds its form, licks its wounds and grits its teeth through the unit’s first injury-stricken stretch of the season, it is not tough to imagine just who is hurting. The answer, usually, is everybody. More difficult is determining the level of pain, and a player’s capacity for tolerating it.
But if there were a lesson learned from the Ravens’ uneven offensive performance last season, it was that the line, no matter who’s on it, knows how to protect the team’s most valuable (and expensive) player. In the Ravens' first season under offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris, quarterback Joe Flacco was hit just 59 times, the third fewest in the NFL, and sacked 27 times, tied for seventh fewest.
This season, they again rank in the top 10 of both categories, with 13 sacks allowed (tied for ninth) and 29 hits allowed (ninth) in seven games.
“We talk about the physical part of it and us going out there and performing, but the bottom line is, across the league, you have so many guys that do what they do really, really at a high level,” Flacco said. “Everybody plays at such a high level at this league that we have offensive and defensive coordinators for a reason. We have all those coaches for a reason, and the positions that they put us in to do a good job definitely mean a lot.”
On Sunday, the Ravens were without Lewis, who suffered a pinched nerve in the Week 6 win over the Tennessee Titans that left him feeling as if a “light switch” had been turned off for a second above his waist.
They were without Hurst, who was added to the injury report after Saturday’s walk-through with a back injury — “just one of those things that happen from time to time,” he said Wednesday.
They were even briefly without Bozeman, who played through a calf injury that sidelined him for parts of the game.
And yet the line, featuring two rookies and a midseason acquisition, did not allow a sack or commit a penalty. In all, the six linemen who played — left tackle Ronnie Stanley, left guard Bozeman, center Matt Skura, right guard Marshal Yanda, right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and reserve guard Hroniss Grasu — allowed just 11 pressures on Flacco, according to Pro Football Focus.
“Our offensive line was not a negative at all in the game,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “They played well.”
With the Ravens’ running game still just as impotent as it was in Week 1, their pass protection has become an unexpected weather vane. While the Ravens largely kept Flacco upright Sunday in Baltimore, the 11 pressures allowed by linemen marked the third game this season in which they’ve allowed double digits, according to PFF. They’ve lost all of them.
In their four wins, they haven’t allowed more than seven pressures.
Pass protection “takes all 11 guys,” Yanda said. “I think that’s not just the offensive line. That’s the receivers getting separation, that’s us blocking our men and that’s Joe [Flacco] making his reads. I think that’s just a fine-tuned running machine for all phases on offense. That’s not just the offensive line. Obviously, we have to block them, but if the receivers aren’t open, then Joe has to hold the ball. Then bad stuff happens, so it takes all 11 of us executing good offense.”
Said Stanley: “You have a sense of when the ball should be gone, but it's never good to really rest as an offensive lineman. You’ve still got to get on your game. But yeah, you do have a sense of [Flacco’s] rhythm and how fast he's getting the ball out as the game goes on.”
It’s unclear who will be in uniform for Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers (4-2), who rank No. 17 in the NFL in sacks per game (2.7). Harbaugh said Wednesday there was a “good chance” Hurst and Lewis would return to action this week. “We’ll know as they practice, just see how they practice, if they practice,” he said.
Lewis said he was “ready to rock and roll,” but couldn’t commit to playing at Carolina. Hurst said he’s “just working to get to 100 percent,” but didn’t indicate how close he was to full strength. Asked about his availability for Sunday, he said: “Still too far ahead.”
“It is what it is,” said Hurst, who started all 16 games last season. “I understand. That’s their job, watching for our safety and making sure that we’re 100 percent when we go out there. So I know that they will do that. I know I’ll be talking to the coaches every single day and figuring out what’s best for the team and figuring out what’s best for me. So that’s kind of the mindset we’re in right now.”
The toughest part about playing offensive line, Yanda said matter-of-factly Wednesday, is “the blocking part.” This week, though, for a few of his linemates, it’s all the parts that come before it.
When their offensive linemen have limited pressure on quarterback Joe Flacco this season, the Ravens have succeeded. When opponents have hit double digits in pressures, the Ravens have gotten into trouble. Below are the season stats for Ravens offensive linemen. Sacks, penalties and pressures by non-linemen are not included.
Week; Opponent (result); Pressures; Sacks; Penalties
Week 1; Bills (win); 6; 0; 2
Week 2; Bengals (loss); 18; 1; 1
Week 3; Broncos (win); 7; 2; 1
Week 4; Steelers (win); 6; 1; 2
Week 5; Browns (loss); 17; 1; 1
Week 6; Titans (win); 5; 0; 3
Week 7; Saints (loss); 11; 0; 0
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Source: Pro Football Focus