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With same offensive line and starting back, Ravens ready to run

With same offensive line and starting back, Ravens ready to run
The Ravens return their 2014 starters on the offensive line in 2015. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Ask new Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman about how his offense was progressing in training camp and the retort was measured, but quick.

The longtime coordinator and former Chicago Bears head coach came to Baltimore with a pass-happy reputation, and his hire led those outside the Ravens organization to wonder whether he would stamp that imprint on his new offense. Trestman sees it differently.

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"It's not my offense," Trestman said this summer. "It's the Ravens offense."

That means that even as the NFL shades every year closer toward Trestman's traditional aerial attack becoming the league norm, the Ravens will use the return of one of the game's best offensive lines and running back Justin Forsett to try to replicate the success of the ground game from 2014.

"You try to go to your strengths," Trestman said. "But there's no doubt that the strength of this football team — or one of them, offensively — is the offensive line and the back that runs the ball.

"You play to your strengths, and you try to utilize the people you have to make a positive play on that down. And it starts with the running game. Raven football starts with the running game, and that doesn't mean you're not going to throw the ball, but the emphasis here is we want to be a great running football team. And we have the players to do that, so that's where we start."

In 2014 the offensive line, and by extension the running game, was one of the biggest question marks for the Ravens entering the season. Star running back Ray Rice was coming off a career-worst 3.1 yards per carry and had domestic violence charges hanging over him through training camp. Ravens running backs combined for an NFL-worst 3.1 yards per carry in 2013, so it wasn't all on Rice.

But Forsett emerged as a perfect fit behind a rebuilt offensive line that starred new starters in right tackle Rick Wagner and center Jeremy Zuttah. Running in a system that produced 1,000-yard rushers for former offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak at every stop in his career, Forsett rushed for 1,266 yards and led all league running backs with 5.4 yards per carry, Forsett was joined at the Pro Bowl by guard Marshal Yanda, who combined with Kelechi Osemele in one of the best interior duos in the NFL.

The league's 30th-ranked rushing attack vaulted to eighth last season, thanks mostly to the offensive line. The linemen see it as a boon that all five, plus top reserves James Hurst and John Urschel, are back this year. It's the first time in team history the starting offensive line is projected to go unchanged from one year to the next.

"I really feel like the sky is really the limit," Osemele said during training camp. "We work really well as a group. I feel like we have a lot of chemistry, and coming back with the same offensive line, the communication has been excellent.

"There [have] even been times where we haven't even … had to relay calls because we kind of have that kind of feel with it. And obviously, we have a lot to work on still. It's still early, but I feel really good about the things we can get done."

Urschel said "it gives us good cohesion.

"We're used to each other, and plus, for us to be used to each other in the same system is a good thing," he said.

Around the league, such wholesale returns aren't common, given salary cap constraints, free agency and generally uneven performance. The Ravens will struggle to keep this group together when both well-compensated veteran Yanda and Osemele, who makes a six-figure salary in the last year of his rookie contract, are up for new deals in the offseason.

It's no surprise, though, that three of the top four offensive lines in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus' grades, are returning with all five starters intact. The Dallas Cowboys (first overall), Ravens (third) and Green Bay Packers (fourth) have a mix of experience and youthful inexpensiveness on their lines.

The Philadelphia Eagles, who cut standout guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans, were the only team not to bring back all its starters.

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Ravens offensive line coach Juan Castillo said Forsett led the league in "explosive runs" in 2014 — he had 17 of 20 yards or more — and the Ravens were one of the best fourth-quarter rushing teams because of the cut blocking and wide-zone schemes that it ran for the second consecutive season.

"Part of that was, when you get on the ground and you cut, it creates big seams," Castillo said. "And also — let's face it — on defense, those defensive linemen don't like to get cut."

Through the preseason and training camp, running backs coach Thomas Hammock said he's seen no indications the Ravens' offense will change from that style of attack this year.

"Up front, we have a great offensive line, guys that can move people and move the line of scrimmage," Hammock said. "Certainly, when you have a strength like that up front, it makes it easier to call certain plays."

Trestman came to the Ravens having one top-10 rushing offense in the 10 seasons he has called plays in the NFL. But Forsett, who joined the Ravens to provide training camp depth last season and three weeks into the season was the starting running back, said Trestman's first act was to let the team's offensive core know he wouldn't abandon what Kubiak built in a year in Baltimore.

"Right off the bat, he let it be known what we're going to be about, trying to keep the same principles, especially in the run game," Forsett said. "It's just all about building on what we did last year. ... The continuity and the chemistry is key. I've been in a lot of systems before where you've got a lot of guys changing in and out up front, and that's never a good sign. I'm glad we get to stay together and grow together."

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