The Ravens’ recent surge on offense can be attributed to a number of factors, including a rushing attack spearheaded by running back Alex Collins, improved health on the part of quarterback Joe Flacco and greater involvement for wide receiver Mike Wallace.
It could also be argued that the foundation for the success is an offensive line that has overcome injuries and early-season struggles to emerge as one of the more solid units in the NFL.
Just ask Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano, whose team will play the Ravens on Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium.
“You look at that offensive line, and they are doing a great job,” he said Tuesday during a conference call with Baltimore media. “Obviously, they are extremely well-coached, and they have good players across the board. They are big, they are strong, they are physical, they are athletic. They can move people off of the line of scrimmage, they are doing a great job of protecting Joe, and again, they are running the ball extremely well. That is an impressive unit, and we have all the respect in the world [for them]. … They get your attention in a hurry.”
Some numbers appear to support Pagano’s assessment. The offensive line ranks second in the league in fewest quarterback hits with 51 — trailing only the Oakland Raiders’ total of 39 — and 12th in rushing with 1,635 yards. Flacco has been sacked just 25 times, the ninth-best mark in the NFL.
The group’s consistent performances are somewhat surprising considering how often it is overlooked. None of the five starters were named to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday, and none were included in Pro Football Focus’ listing of the top 25 offensive linemen through Week 14. (Rick Wagner, last year’s starting right tackle who left via free agency for the Detroit Lions, was on the list at No. 24, and the 0-14 Cleveland Browns had two representatives: guards Joel Bitonio and Kevin Zeitler.)
But that’s fine with left guard James Hurst, who said the linemen don’t play for accolades.
“It’s not a lot of shine or glamour or anything like that,” he said. “But we know what our job is, and before we come in on Tuesdays and look at the film, we know that we either played well or we didn’t. We just hold ourselves to that standard. Sure, everyone wants those personal awards and wants to get credit for the things you’ve done well, but I don’t think anyone is mad or holding grudges about it. It is what it is, and it’s not going to affect us moving forward.”
Curiously, the offensive line has been effective despite injuries that have made left tackle Ronnie Stanley the only projected starter in the preseason to remain at his position through Week 15.
Center Ryan Jensen won the starting job after John Urschel retired on the first day of training camp. Right tackle Austin Howard was signed as a free agent Aug. 4. Shortly thereafter, Hurst moved from right tackle to left guard after Alex Lewis was diagnosed with a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
Perhaps the biggest blow, however, was the season-ending fractured left ankle suffered by six-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda in the 24-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sept. 17. Yanda’s absence opened the door for Matt Skura, an undrafted rookie out of Duke in his second year as a professional, to fill the void, which he has done for 10 of the past 12 games.
“I knew that there were obviously high expectations with Marshal,” Skura said. “I just wanted to go out there and give it my best effort and make sure that I wasn’t the one screwing up or anything like that. … I don’t want to let Austin down or Jensen or Hurst or Ronnie. So I know I have to elevate my play and be great.”
As painful as Yanda’s injury was, though, it had the surprising effect of galvanizing the linemen.
“I think it did,” Stanley recalled. “I think it forced us to be more on-point because with him there, you never had to worry about him and he had everything on the move. But with him not there, you definitely have to take that extra step to make sure that everything is on-point.”
Stanley, Hurst, Jensen, Skura and Howard have started nine games together, including six of the past seven. In his past four starts, Flacco has been sacked just three times, and he credited the line’s continuity for keeping him upright.
“I think it is a lot of things,” he said. “I do not know if you want to pinpoint one little thing, but those guys playing well definitely [helps] and us not having to jostle around a bunch of different positions.”
Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg echoed his quarterback’s sentiment, saying: “The line playing together, I know, is a very important thing, and playing together for a period of time. You’d like to have your starters there the whole season. Typically, those teams do very well and it correlates to winning. We were mixing and matching there for just a little while, and … the fellows have been playing together for many weeks here, and I think that has shown.”
The line will likely have to continue to perform effectively in the final two regular-season games against the Colts and the Cincinnati Bengals for the Ravens to reach the AFC playoffs for the first time since 2014. But at a minimum, the unit has played well enough to get to this stage of the season.
Howard said the group is prepared to handle that assignment.
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“If the offense is the car, the O-line is the engine,” he said. “As the offensive line goes, so goes the offense, and we’ve known that since day one. So it’s not any added extra stress on us. We kind of go into every situation understanding that already. So I wouldn’t say it’s more stress. It’s just part of the game and part of our job.”