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Schmuck: For Ravens offense, it's what's up front that really counts

Much of training camp and the preseason was spent waiting for Joe Flacco, and wondering whether his sore back would allow him enough practice time to be ready for Sunday's season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Much of the offseason was spent watching the Ravens' front office rebuild the defensive secondary and bolster the team's pass rush.

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Obviously, those were all important considerations, but a healthy Joe and a stifling defense are going to take the Ravens only so far if the banged-up offensive line does not come together in a hurry.

Terrell Suggs' leadership is key for young players.

This wasn't supposed to be a problem after a 2016 season in which top draft choice Ronnie Stanley and fourth-round pick Alex Lewis began to establish themselves as the young nucleus of the O-line. Ozzie Newsome and his staff still worked to insulate it from the inevitability of injuries, but ended up scrambling to find help when Lewis had to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery and Stanley missed much of training camp.

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It certainly didn't help when solid young guard and math whiz John Urschel made the calculated decision to retire from football and avoid bruising his brilliant brain, especially with six-time Pro Bowl player Marshal Yanda only recently returning to action after significant shoulder surgery.

The team felt confident enough early in the offseason to let three-year starting right tackle Rick Wagner leave for the Detroit Lions to become one of the NFL's highest-paid right tackles. Newsome also felt he had enough depth back then to deal away center Jeremy Zuttah, only to re-sign him recently as the injuries piled up.

The line has been in such flux that fourth-year undrafted free agent James Hurst showed up at right tackle, left guard and left tackle over the course of training camp. Hurst was projected to stay at right tackle until the Ravens signed veteran Austin Howard early in camp.

The word most used to describe the offensive line during the course of training camp and the preseason was "patchwork," which pretty much outlined the challenge faced by the coaching staff trying to piece together an effective unit and get everyone ready for the start of the regular season.

You know there's a problem when the coaches start lauding the "versatility" of the players who are being plugged into their secondary positions on the line. And it certainly isn't comforting to fans when cornerstone players such as Stanley remain out of sight without specific explanation.

The preseason didn't really clarify anything. The first-team offense wasn't impressive and fill-in starting quarterback Ryan Mallett never looked particularly comfortable, but the line largely held up and the Ravens were able to run the ball effectively at times.

They won the first two games handily, but that was more a result of the dominant defense and the solid performance of the second- and third-team offensive units that outscored their Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins counterparts by a combined score of 28-3 in the second half of those games.

If you want to put a happy face on that, it does indicate there are some hungry young players who might get a chance to find out what it's like to play against a real NFL defense over the next few weeks. But uncertainty on the offensive line usually translates to inconsistency behind it.

The Ravens' running game is a key; the offensive line and injuries are definite concerns.

The front office diversified the offensive attack by bringing in veteran receiver Jeremy Maclin and all-purpose running back Danny Woodhead, which would have been really nice if Flacco had been able to get onto the field to work with them for more than the week or so leading up to the regular-season opener.

The fact that he'll be trying to get up to speed in actual regular-season situations amplifies the importance of a dependable offensive line from both an execution and protection standpoint.

It has never been more critical for the Ravens to keep Flacco on his feet. He has spent the past month rehabilitating his injured back and — as tough and durable as he has been throughout his career — that means he could be just one false move or freak hit from starting that process all over again.

So it had to be a bit disquieting when John Harbaugh seemed almost fatalistic about the team's O-line problems after what was otherwise an uplifting victory over the Dolphins in the second preseason game.

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"We've been hit in the offensive line especially hard, and it wasn't a real deep position for us anyway,'' he said. "And then John [Urschel] retired, and that was a real surprise, but I think the guys are managing it. All you can do is just manage what you have and make the best of it and see where you get. Sometimes I think it makes you tougher and stronger and all of those kinds of things. I'm really proud of the way they're working and we'll make of it what we can. I think we're going to be a good offensive line before it's all said and done."

Trouble is, the Ravens are in a situation where they need to have an effective offensive line Sunday afternoon when they take the field against a Bengals defense that has some big-time playmakers up front.

They should not put Flacco out there until they're confident he's in a safe place.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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