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Battling injuries, Ravens offensive line looks to get running game going in Miami like last year

Ravens offensive lineman Rick Wagner participates in a practice at M&T Bank Stadium on Aug. 3, 2015.
Ravens offensive lineman Rick Wagner participates in a practice at M&T Bank Stadium on Aug. 3, 2015. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

In what was a resurgent 2014 season for the Ravens' offensive line, the group's finest hour may have come on the team's last trip to Sun Life Stadium to play the Miami Dolphins.

Clinging to a one-point, fourth-quarter lead in a December game that they badly needed to win, the Ravens drove 80 yards on nine plays, scoring on Justin Forsett's 2-yard touchdown run. After a defensive stop, the Ravens got the ball on their own 19-yard line and needed just seven plays — all of them runs — to get into the end zone with quarterback Joe Flacco scoring on a 1-yard sneak to put the game away.

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In the 28-13 victory, the Ravens rushed for 183 yards, averaged 5.9 yards per carry and Flacco was sacked only once.

"That was one of the games that we remember," said Ravens right tackle Rick Wagner. "As an O-lineman, that's like your dream game. We were just watching film on it and we definitely want to repeat that."

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This year's Ravens offensive line has been solid, especially given the number of injuries it has had to endure. The Ravens have started only five games with their expected starting offensive line intact.

However, the group has yet to take over a game like it did last year against the Dolphins. A rash of injuries, an often pass-heavy game plan and defenses committed to stopping the run have prevented the Ravens from wearing down the opposition and controlling the game up front.

On Sunday against the Dolphins, the Ravens will face the league's last-ranked run defense. With a mistake-prone Matt Schaub at quarterback and a group of inexperienced wide receivers, it would be a good time for the offensive line to be at its best.

"I would like to think that we do get better every week," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "The offensive line has certainly done that."

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Ravens quarterbacks have been sacked just 16 times, fourth-fewest in the NFL. In seven of 11 games this season, including the past three, the Ravens have surrendered one sack or fewer. But the Ravens have been below league average in running the football. Far better was expected after last year's team finished eighth in the NFL in rushing yards per game (126.2) and tied for sixth in yards per carry (4.5). The Ravens currently rank 18th (98.5, 4.0) in both of those categories

"We didn't start out the way we wanted obviously," said Wagner, the only Raven to play every offensive snap. "I guess this year took a little time for us to get going. But I'm really excited to finish up this year. We have so much potential and so much ability left."

For the first time in franchise history, the Ravens started the season with the same exact offensive line from the previous year. Tackles Eugene Monroe and Wagner were healthy, Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele made up one of the top guard tandems in the NFL, and Jeremy Zuttah was settled in at center. James Hurst and John Urschel, who both started in the playoffs last year, returned as top backups.

In many of the preseason publications and rankings, the Ravens' offensive line was at least in the conversation as the top unit in the NFL. But starting with Monroe sustaining a concussion on their first drive in the season opener, the Ravens' offensive line has rarely been whole.

"Obviously, it's been tough," said Hurst, who will start Sunday in place of Monroe for a sixth time this season. "We've had, it seems, several changes week-in and week-out."

The group of Monroe, Osemele, Zuttah, Yanda and Wagner has started and finished just three games together this season. Zuttah is on injured reserve after having surgery to repair a partially torn pectoral muscle. Osemele, who has missed the previous two contests with a knee injury, is expected to return against the Dolphins, but Monroe (shoulder) won't.

"Obviously, it's nice starting out with the same five guys, but we understand that injuries happen and it's part of the game," Yanda said. "You just try to roll with the guys that are in there; no matter who that is. You just have to hold them to a high standard."

In Monday's victory over the Browns, the Ravens offensive line included Hurst, a 2014 undrafted free agent, starting at left tackle; Ryan Jensen, a 2013 sixth-round pick, making his second career start at left guard; and Urschel, a 2014 fifth-round pick making his second career start at center. Yanda, a 2007 third-round pick, and Wagner, a 2013 fifth-rounder, have been the mainstays.

The group held the Browns without a sack of Schaub, and the Ravens also rushed for 104 yards.

"For them to play like that, credit their work ethic," Harbaugh said. "They're good players. Credit our scouts, and credit [offensive line coach] Juan Castillo for doing a great job of coaching those guys."

Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman said the patchwork offensive line hasn't impacted his play calling at all.

"We're just dialing up plays and expecting them to do their job, because we see them do it in practice," Trestman said.

Still, other factors have challenged the group. The Ravens have run the ball only 271 times and only nine teams have fewer rushing attempts than them. With Gary Kubiak calling the plays last year, the Ravens averaged 28 runs per game. This year, they average 24.6. Any offensive lineman will tell you that a running game requires a rhythm to succeed and all too often — whether it's because of a sizable deficit or what the defense is doing — the Ravens have been taken out of that rhythm.

They've also struggled to combat teams stacking the box and devoting more defenders to stopping the run, a strategy that they employ because they don't fear the Ravens' downfield passing game. The Ravens have converted just 17 of 30 third and fourth down situations when needing 2 yards or less. That's the sixth-worst mark in the NFL.

"That's tough, and that's why you have plays that you check out of," Hurst said. "Sometimes, you just have to run the ball. That's Coach Trestman's job. We trust him. Whatever play he calls, we're going to run it. If they have 11 guys in the box and he calls a run, we're going to block it the best we can."

Temperatures are expected to be in the 80's Sunday at Sun Life Stadium, which isn't exactly the weather the Ravens will see throughout December. This is the time of year when the elements often force teams to rely on their running games.

This is exactly what the Ravens' offensive line has been building toward.

"It's easy to see that we have a lot of guys that can get the job done," Osemele said. "I think that's actually been a strength of this team, the fact that we've had some injuries and some guys banged up and we still have been able to produce."

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