As Ronnie Stanley deliberately slides the brace over his wrapped left ankle, the Ravens left tackle could pass for a 34-year-old on his last NFL leg rather than the fresh-faced 24-year-old he actually is.
Every Sunday, it seems, Stanley has to interrupt his work protecting the blind side of Ravens quarterbacks to wince through another physical mishap.
His offensive-line comrade and locker-room neighbor, Marshal Yanda, long ago accepted that weekly pain is the inevitable price of working in the NFL trenches.
Stanley has been forced to make rapid peace with that reality over the last three years. Injuries have cost him at least one game in each of his NFL seasons. But he’s managed to stay on the field for 88 percent of the team’s offensive snaps this season, despite the high-ankle sprain that has caused him obvious pain in recent weeks.
Several times this season, including last week against the Atlanta Falcons, Stanley has been down on the field, clutching his leg, only to return a few plays later. His fighting spirit belies his relaxed persona away from the field.
“It’s something that just has to happen,” he said. “To be at the top level and be considered elite, you have to play through injuries. I kind of told myself a long time ago: ‘If you can play, play. If you can’t, there’s no time sulking about. You just have to get your body back to where you can play and help your team out.’”
It’s less than ideal for a guy trying to live up to his billing as the No. 6 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. But Stanley has mostly grown into the player the Ravens anticipated when they selected him out of Notre Dame.
The scouting website Pro Football Focus grades him the 15th-best tackle in the league (on a list that includes both right and left tackles) and the seventh-best pass blocker in that group. He’s neck-and-neck with Yanda as the highest graded blocker on a Ravens offensive line that’s allowed the seventh-fewest sacks in the league.
“Yes, he’s taken a step forward,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s a young player, a very talented guy. From the physicality and a finish standpoint — those are things that he’s really been focusing on this year. It seems to be paying off.”
Yanda, the six-time Pro Bowl selection, is both a mentor to the team’s young linemen and an exacting analyst of their progress. It’s apparent, watching him interact with Stanley this year, that he now regards the left tackle more as a peer than an apprentice.
“Coming into your own is a whole process,” Yanda said. “He’s not finished getting better. I think the kid still has room to grow. But he’s doing good things. You can tell he’s growing up as a player, by the way he thinks and the way he does things. He’s maturing.”
When you ask Stanley about his progress, he often talks about the detailed work he puts in, refining his technique. His 6-foot-6, 315-pound frame and nimble feet make him a natural at left tackle, but professional pass blocking is an elusive art, and it’s the area where he has improved most noticeably.
“For me, it’s being more consistent in my technique,” he said. “I think I’ve done a good job being really critical of myself, just trying to focus on my footwork, hand placement, head placement. It’s really all those little things coming together, and it starts to show up on film.”
It’s a testament to his work that when he’s not injured, Ravens fans almost take his performance for granted. That’s the lot of an offensive linemen — the better he does his job, the fewer headlines he makes.
Stanley doesn’t look or talk like a battered warrior. He has retained his boyish features and gives interviews with a chilled-out tone.
But he’s unleashed his inner fire during recent games, shouting Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton off the field in Week 11 and exhorting the Ravens to continue running the ball down the Oakland Raiders’ throats the following Sunday.
In that sense, he’s reminiscent of the man against whom he’ll always be judged — Hall of Fame left tackle Jonathan Ogden. The former Ravens great was the king of sounding professorial during the week only to transform into a helmet-flinging monster on game days.
“That’s always been who I am,” Stanley said. “From the time I was a high-school recruit to college to draftee. People always question how light-spoken I am, but when I’m on the field, it’s not the same person. … I’m a competitive person. I’m not out there trying to beat you at rock-paper-scissors.”
Stanley and his line-mates have had a grand old time the last three weeks as the Ravens have averaged 48 attempts and 239 yards on the ground and dominated time of possession. For all the refinement they practice in pass protection, they love mauling the guys in front of them.
“That’s going to get you juiced up,” Stanley said.
Which might lead you to assume the offensive line prefers blocking for Lamar Jackson as opposed to Joe Flacco, who averaged 42 pass attempts a game through the first nine weeks.
But Stanley said he doesn’t view his job any differently.
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“For me, it’s about who I’m blocking more than who I’m blocking for,” he said.