The Ravens' troubles on offense are many, and the potential remedies are varied. As far as quarterback Joe Flacco is concerned, a healthy and effective offensive line is one of the highest priorities.
"Building a good team always starts up front," he said Wednesday. "It starts with those guys. We're going to try and overcome anything we can, but those guys are a huge part of our success. Having everybody be healthy goes into that. Obviously, everybody deals with things here and there — and each team has their own issues with that — but it will definitely be a big part of it."
Health and effectiveness have been fleeting this season for the offensive line. The Ravens rank 26th in the NFL in rushing yards per game. When it comes to pass protection, Flacco has been sacked 15 times, tied for the 10th highest total among quarterbacks.
The offensive line's struggles have contributed to the team's current four-game losing streak and made the upcoming bye week anything but relaxing.
"The bottom line here is we would be happy if we're 7-0, and we're not," offensive line coach Juan Castillo said. "So we're all trying to work hard to get better. That's our thing, and the good thing is when you work hard, good things happen as long as you're doing the right things."
Castillo, when speaking to the media this week, didn't express any sign of panic. When discussing what his unit needs to improve, he referenced various technical aspects of the trade.
The offensive line thrived in 2014, paving the way for running back Justin Forsett to rush for 1,266 yards, a 5.4-yard average, and eight touchdowns. And they enabled Flacco to throw for a career-best 3,986 yards and 27 scores and get sacked a career-low 19 times in a 16-game season.
But the unit has struggled this season and last.
The free-agent departure of left guard Kelechi Osemele to the Oakland Raiders in the offseason solidified concerns about the unit, and the organization selected Ronnie Stanley in the first round and Alex Lewis in the fourth of the draft to address a glaring need. With Stanley seemingly the left tackle of the present and future, the Ravens released oft-injured Eugene Monroe.
Stanley and Lewis started the first three games on the left side of the line. That duo combined with center Jeremy Zuttah, right guard Marshal Yanda, and right tackle Rick Wagner, and helped the Ravens start the season 3-0.
But injuries forced both rookies to sit out an eventual 28-27 loss to the Oakland Raiders on Oct. 2, and the offensive line has been in flux ever since. Lewis has started the last three games at left tackle because of a foot injury to Stanley, and John Urschel has replaced Lewis at left guard.
Ryan Jensen has started the past two games at right guard for Yanda (left shoulder), and Wagner returned from a one-game absence due to a thigh injury to replace James Hurst.
The carousel of players on the offensive line has made it difficult for the unit to develop continuity, but offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said that excuse doesn't fly with the players or coaches.
"If a man goes down, the next man comes, in and we expect him to play as good or even better sometimes," he said. "That's our mentality. We can go create reasons and all that stuff, but all that stuff doesn't matter."
Former Ravens offensive lineman Wally Williams said the difficulty of cultivating consistency from an offensive line with changing personnel on a weekly basis. But he also questioned whether the current group is built to physically plow opponents out of the way to open running lanes, and cited as evidence the teams 11 rushing yards on 11 attempts in Sunday's 24-16 loss to the New York Jets.
"It definitely showed up this weekend with how physical the Jets were up front," said Williams, who runs an offensive line performance school for high school, college and NFL linemen in Arizona. "Before [running back] Terrance West even got the ball, you had Jets in the backfield. You just can't have that kind of penetration up front when you have three down linemen that are really wrecking your entire run game."
Wagner acknowledged that the offense must improve its ability to move the ball on the ground because that will set up play-action passes for Flacco and the receivers.
"We've got to get the ball running successfully in the first and second quarters," Wagner said. "That's our biggest thing. We've got to prove to the coaches and everybody that we can get the ball rolling early and continue that in the second half."
Without a productive rushing attack, the Ravens have had to rely on Flacco's arm, which has allowed opposing defenses to focus on applying pressure. Flacco has been hit 45 times and is on pace to be hit 102 times, which would be a career high.
"We can always keep Joe cleaner," Lewis said. "The perfect day in our world is when Joe never gets touched. Not even breathed on. He got sacked twice and he got pressured a bunch of times, and when he was clean, the pocket was sort of tight. So when you watch tape like that, you're saying, 'OK, how are we going to clean it up? What are we going to do better? What are we going to change? Let's attack it in practice and get better every day.'"
All is not bleak. Yanda and Stanley practiced Tuesday and Wednesday, and coach John Harbaugh said he anticipates that Yanda, a five-time Pro Bowler, will begin participating fully next week in preparation for a Nov. 6 showdown with the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers.
The impending return of the front five that started the season could be a significant relief for the Ravens. But Zuttah said it will be up to the offensive line to turn potential into results.
"I think we're close, but you can't keep saying you're close and never get it," he said. "Obviously, there were a couple plays that one more inch here or one more second there, everything would have come busting out, but they didn't. So what can you do to make sure that next time, you're not saying the same thing?"