Despite widespread roster changes this offseason, one position group left largely untouched was the Ravens’ offensive line, which was a major reason for their Super Bowl run.
Yet through the first quarter of the season, the offensive line may be the unit struggling most.
The run game has been so bad that Baltimore basically abandoned it entirely in the second half in Buffalo. The pass protection had been a strong point, but allowed too much pressure on quarterback
So what happened since last year?
On the surface, the changes are the addition of Run Game Coordinator Juan Castillo and starting center
Head Coach John Harbaugh addressed their impact and more Monday after Baltimore rushed for just 24 yards, four sacks and 12 quarterback hits. The Ravens are tied for second-to-last in the league in average yards per carry (2.6), and has allowed 12 sacks, the 10th-most in the NFL.
“I think the whole O-line is disappointing right now,” Harbaugh said. “No one is more disappointed than they are right now. We’ve got to run block better and we’ve got to pass block better.
“Too many mental mistakes. Too many things that are basic protection rules that we understand and we should know and we did not get on the same page with.”
The Ravens hired Castillo last January, and he helped the team on its final push to Super Bowl XLVII victory. This season, Castillo has taken a larger role coaching the offensive line.
The former Philadelphia Eagles offensive line coach (1998 – 2010) and defensive coordinator (2011 – 2012), has brought some changes to the offensive line’s scheme. But the Ravens attest that they aren’t sweeping alterations.
Last week, Pro Bowl guard
The Ravens aren’t making it exactly clear what that twist is.
“It’s the same offense. We still run the same plays. We still have the same philosophy,” Harbaugh said. “There are always a few wrinkles. That’s why I brought Juan in, because I was excited about the things I knew he was going to bring to the table and bring to our program. That’s a part of what we’re doing.”
At the same time, Harbaugh also said there could be more tweaks made.
“We’ve got to make decisions, scheme-wise, about what’s best for our guys to do,” he said. “It has nothing to do with style or technique or anything like that. It’s finding what our guys can do well with this group and doing it well.”
Harbaugh expressed his assurance in Castillo, and indicated that the group is still growing together.
“I’m very confident in every one of our coaches,” he said. “We have a great staff. Everybody works together and we’ll find a way to work it out. It’s a process. It’s going to be a year-long process.”
The Ravens used a lot of stretch-zone blocking last year. This season, they have centered their running attack up the middle.
According to Pro Football Focus, Baltimore has 18 rushing attempts to the middle left and 17 to the middle right. They don’t have more than 14 to any other area.
Running up the middle means Gradkowski has taken a large part of the action. In his second season and first as the team’s starter, Gradkowski got mixed reviews from his head coach.
Harbaugh began with positives. He said he hasn’t been pushed around, has done a good job getting on his targets and holding blocks. But there are also improvements that must be made.
“I think [he’s] just what you’d expect for a young center,” Harbaugh said.
“I talk to him all the time. I think he can come off the ball better. Sometimes he’s a little tentative with his footwork and he wants to stay in front of people. Go ahead and come off the ball and move people a little bit. He’s capable of doing that.”
There’s also the tough job of making adjustments, recognizing defenses and picking up blitzes. The Ravens gave up too much pressure up the middle due to missed assignments in Buffalo, Harbaugh said.
Being a good quarterback of the offensive line often comes with experience, and former starter Matt Birk became a pro at it during his 15 seasons. Gradkowski, a former fourth-round pick out of Delaware, is still trying to grow accustomed to it.
“It’s a difference between Gino and Matt with the calls,” Harbaugh said. “I think we’re feeling that in there right now. Gino’s a really smart guy, but Matt had been on it for a lot of years.”
It’s not just an issue of blocking better in the run game now either. Quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked four times and hit another eight Sunday in Buffalo. Pressure in his face directly led to his third of five interceptions, in which he lofted a pass in the red zone off his back foot.
Harbaugh called the amount of pressure Flacco saw, “unacceptable.”
“We’ve got to be a lot more physical with the inside part of our pass protection and give Joe more depth to the pocket and keep Joe more clean,” Harbaugh said. “Joe does not need to be under the pressure he’s under.”
One of the Ravens’ biggest issues going forward will be correcting things on their offensive line.
Harbaugh stressed that in order for Flacco to have success, he has to be able to go through his progressions. Harbaugh also said the Ravens have to become a good running team, and it has to be evident that they are physical up front.
While that’s a lot to fix, there’s still time. But the Ravens can’t afford to wait either.
“We’re not the same team we were two months ago and we’re going to be a different team two months from now,” Harbaugh said. “I’m most interested in what team we are six days from now when we go down to Miami.”