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John Harbaugh Pinpoints Offensive Line Woes

Posted Sep 24, 2013

Baltimore's line had a rough day Sunday, but the head coach believes it will get better by getting in sync.

Ravens Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda, the anchor of Baltimore’s offensive line, had one word to sum up Sunday’s game for his unit.

“Rough,” he said.

Baltimore’s offensive line was for the most part beaten by the Houston Texans front seven in the run game. Not being able to clear holes has been a trend for the Ravens in all three games this season.

The Ravens are averaging just 2.6 yards per carry, the second-worst mark in the NFL. That’s despite having what many considered one of the best running back duos in the league in Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.

“Our run game is not where it needs to be,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “We’re going to go to work on that – we have been working on it. We’ll continue to do so, and we need to make that important.”

With Rice and Pierce in the backfield, the problem seems to be centered on the offensive line. That’s what the grades show too.

Every Ravens offensive lineman received a negative grade from Pro Football Focus for their performance Sunday against Houston. No Ravens offensive lineman except Yanda has received a positive grade in any game yet this season.

The odd part is that Baltimore’s offensive line is mostly intact from the unit that ran the ball well throughout last year’s playoff run. That consistency was supposed to be a strength.

Bryant McKinnie is back at left tackle, Kelechi Osemele at left guard, Yanda at right guard and Michael Oher at right tackle.

The one change in personnel is at center, where second-year player Gino Gradkowski took over for retired 15-year veteran Matt Birk. Harbaugh gave a review of Gradkowski’s performance after his first career start in Denver.

“Physically, he did a good job,” Harbaugh said. “Then, of course, running the show, he did a good job, [but] he could do better with that. For the first time out against that defense, it was pretty good. There is a lot that he can improve on and get better at.”

The other tweak has been schematically. In his first full year with the team, Run Game Coordinator Juan Castillo instituted some changes that the Ravens are confident have improved the run game but will take some time to iron out.

Baltimore’s offensive line did more stretch-zone run blocking last year. On Monday, Harbaugh pointed to needing to clean up combination blocks.

“I would characterize it more of being in sync, I think, more in terms of working together more efficiently – combination blocks going to the right guy with the right technique at the right time,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not just a matter of just one-on-one knocking somebody off the ball. That’s not the way it works. It’s way more complicated than that up front.”

Harbaugh didn’t want to go into the details of the Ravens’ problem, but said the coaching staff feels like they understand it and they will be working on it in practice. Harbaugh said there’s “no doubt” in his mind that it can be corrected.

The other aspect that should be considered is that the Ravens offensive line has faced some strong defensive fronts so far this season.

In Week 1, the Ravens faced Denver, which held Oakland running back Darren McFadden to nine yards on 12 carries Monday night. In Week 2, Baltimore faced Cleveland, which limited Miami to 20 yards on 23 carries in Week 1. In Week 3, Baltimore faced Houston, who many consider to have perhaps the strongest front seven in the NFL.

“A lot of times when you watch the tape, there is really good blocking going on out there,” Harbaugh said. “Sometimes, against a really good front where they’ve got seven guys that can make plays, one guy here, one miss there, one bad target in another place, each time that’s what holds you back.”

The Ravens will get somewhat of a reprieve this week, as the upcoming Buffalo Bills are allowing the second-most rushing yards per game (155) in the NFL.

Still, Harbaugh emphasized that the Ravens need to be able to run against good fronts, because they face a lot of them this year and particularly in the AFC North.

One thing the Ravens aren’t going to do is stop running the ball, Harbaugh said. They rank 10th in NFL in rushing attempts.

“We’re going to be able to run the ball here; it is a part of our DNA,” Harbaugh said. “We have the people to do it. We’ve got some big, strong, tough offensive lineman, and we have really good backs. Our fullback [Vonta Leach] is the best blocking fullback in the league. The run game is something that has to happen for us.”

The offensive line has done a solid job in pass blocking, which should also be noted. The unit has surrendered eight sacks in three games, a solid number in the middle of the NFL pack (15th).

The Texans only hit and sacked Joe Flacco twice. Harbaugh said the Ravens quarterback has seemed more confident in the pocket this season and been able to go through his progressions. For example, he hit his final read, Torrey Smith, on a crossing pattern for a big 24-yard gain Sunday.

“I would say the offensive line has been excellent with the pass blocking,” Harbaugh said. “I think [Flacco] feels very much protected back there.”

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