On Tuesday, during his first question-and-answer session with reporters this season, assistant head coach and tight ends coach Greg Roman was asked about his tight ends’ ability to block and get to the second level on running plays. The man largely credited with revitalizing the Ravens’ ground game last year spoke generally about their blocking before punctuating his response with a metaphor.
“This book's only half-written, and there's a lot of chapters left,” Roman said. “So we plan on making those some interesting reading.”
It can be only coincidence that the fate of the Ravens’ offensive line, and perhaps their dormant rushing attack, might hinge on, well, a bookend tackle.
With James Hurst sidelined by a back injury the past three weeks, rookie Orlando Brown Jr. has stepped in at right tackle and “really done well,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. As a unanimous All-American at Oklahoma last season, Brown allowed no sacks at left tackle. In eight games this season, including starts in the past three, the third-round draft pick hasn’t allowed even a quarterback hit, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus.
But his future in the line’s rotation after the Ravens return from their bye week is written in pencil, not pen. If the Ravens had to play a game Tuesday, offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris offered Tuesday, Brown would start. Beyond that, he could not say. He doesn’t know who will be at full strength and when.
Left tackle Ronnie Stanley didn’t practice last week or play Sunday after injuring his left ankle in Week 8 against the Carolina Panthers. Left guard Alex Lewis (neck) was limited through the week and received his lowest PFF game score of the season in the 23-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Reserve guard-center Bradley Bozeman (calf) hasn’t played a snap the past two weeks.
The good news, Harbaugh said Monday, is that "all of our injuries" should be alleviated, if not altogether healed, by the time the Ravens face the Cincinnati Bengals on Nov. 18. The bad news, his critics have pointed out, is that the offensive line appears no closer than it did in Week 1 to resolving a bedeviling problem.
It is not pass blocking. Despite leading the NFL in passing attempts this season — the Ravens are a far-and-away No. 1, with 28 more attempts (391) than the runner-up Minnesota Vikings (363) — they are tied for 10th in sacks allowed (17) and tied for 11th in quarterback hits allowed (41).
According to PFF, Stanley has given up one sack, two hits and nine hurries in 370 pass-blocking snaps. In 296 such snaps, Hurst has allowed no sacks, two hits and 13 hurries. Brown's surrendered just eight hurries in his 159 pass-blocking snaps.
The Ravens’ passing attack has made do with shorthanded offensive lines throughout the season. On Sunday, with recent practice squad call-up Jermaine Eluemunor at left tackle and Brown at right tackle, they limited deeper drops on longer-developing passing plays. On 39 drop-backs, Flacco was sacked twice by a pass rush that had entered the game leading the NFL in sacks per game.
The Ravens’ only answer in the running game has been to call on Jackson, at once turbo-charging their footspeed under center and risking the health of the franchise’s likely quarterback of the future. With Jackson, the Ravens are No. 27 in the NFL in rushing yards per game (92.7) and No. 31 in yards per carry (3.6). Without Jackson, the average rush dips to 3.4 yards — as bad as the league-worst Arizona Cardinals.
“I think guys are working hard,” said Roman, who pointed to the team’s production on short-yardage runs as a reason for optimism. “We’re grinding at it. We’re close on some things, but we just need a little bit more precision, little bit more precise coaching, playing, everything. We’re working in that direction. … We’re just not getting the big hits right now. Generally speaking, those things will happen just by everybody being a little bit more precise.”
At three line slots, the Ravens appear set. On PFF, Stanley ranks No. 11 among tackles with at least 200 snaps this season. Right guard Marshal Yanda has overcome offseason injuries to recapture his form as one of the game’s top interior linemen. And D'Alessandris gave center Matt Skura an A-plus grade Tuesday for his play this season, noting his guidance and communication along the line after moving over from guard.
Which leaves right tackle and left guard perhaps up for grabs. Harbaugh said that with Brown’s development, he’s “wedged his way” into the mix of linemen who might be considered indispensable by season’s end. But Brown can, at this point, reliably play only a tackle position.
Hurst, though, played over 1,000 snaps at left guard last season, when the largely Yanda-less Ravens averaged 4.0 yards per carry and 116.0 rushing yards per game, and Alex Collins rated as one of the NFL’s top running backs.
The cost-benefit analysis of a move inside to Lewis’ position would be largely conjectural. Hurst has graded out better as a pass blocker and worse as a run blocker than Lewis has this season, according to PFF. If the Ravens are considering a shake-up, they aren’t saying.
“Through this bye week, we’re still going to be figuring that out,” Stanley said Tuesday. “But I’m very happy with the way the guys have fought through and just given it their all with the injuries.”
The silver lining of those injuries, though, has been Brown. He said after Sunday’s game that he feels “very comfortable,” that he’ll continue to work toward team success. The Ravens are winless in his three starts this season, but his accelerated emergence could hasten other changes, big and small.