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Eisenberg: Have Ravens Really Fixed Biggest 2013 Issue?


The Ravens offensive line was widely fingered as a chief culprit for the team's failure to make the playoffs in 2013. That's what happens when your quarterback gets sacked 48 times and your running game establishes new franchise-low thresholds.

Those issues precipitated a major overhaul. During the offseason, the Ravens re-signed their blind-side tackle, Eugene Monroe, and traded for a new center, Jeremy Zuttah. They let their right tackle, Michael Oher, depart via free agency. Kelechi Osemele returned from back surgery to claim the starting left guard job. Rick Wagner, a 2013 fifth-round draft pick, took over for Oher. 

In the wake of all that organizational focus, the line seemingly has receded as a primary concern. The reconfigured starting five looked sharp in training camp and solid in the preseason. The coaches have praised them. The players sound optimistic.

"We really jelled this preseason and got the chemistry and communication down. We're really excited," Wagner said earlier this week. 

As the 2014 season begins, there's some handwringing in Ravenstown about the state of the secondary, the shorthanded defensive interior and whether Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak's redesigned unit can hit the ground running, but it seems the offensive line isn't keeping anyone up at night with worry.

Have the Ravens really fixed their biggest issue from a year ago? 

I think the answer to that question will go a long way toward determining whether they win their regular-season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

The handwringing over the defense is valid, but given the Ravens' long history of playing anywhere from solid to spectacular defense in front of their home fans, I'm guessing they'll show up on that side of the ball Sunday. The Bengals are potent on offense and will make some plays, but not easily. 

The bottom-line issue is whether the Ravens' offense can match or surpass what the Bengals generate … and that puts an onus on the line.

Looking good in training camp and the preseason is one thing; making a dent in a strong defense is another. The Bengals ranked fifth in rushing defense and third in overall defense a year ago despite losing All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins to an ACL tear at midseason. Quite simply, they're hard to budge. 

A year ago, the Ravens generated just 132 yards on the ground in two games against Cincinnati. Flacco was sacked seven times.

But the Ravens have a new philosophy now, one predicated on strong line play. Kubiak's blueprint starts with having a solid running game; his play action-based passing game is heavily dependent on the ground game occupying the defense's attention. It did just that for years in Houston and Denver, where Kubiak coached before, and the Ravens believe it will continue to work in Baltimore, even with running back Ray Rice sitting out the first two games because of a league suspension. 

Asked earlier this week what has impressed him the most about the Ravens' new offense during camp and the preseason, veteran linebacker Daryl Smith said, "We're going to run the ball this year."

That's certainly a vote of confidence for the line. 

It's not a high-profile group.  Wagner has never started an NFL game. Marshal Yanda, the right guard, is the only one who has been to the Pro Bowl. Reviews of Zuttah's performances for Tampa Bay, his former team, were mixed. Osemele was injured a year ago.

But line play is all about how players mesh collectively, not how they perform individually. The Ravens painstakingly assembled this group to fit Kubiak's zone blocking scheme. Zuttah was brought in as much for his intelligence as for his quickness, to make the right calls and calm the waters that became so roiled a year ago.

"Obviously we think it suits our guys," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said of the zone scheme. "We hired Gary and we put this offensive line together, so we do feel like these guys are well-built to run this scheme." 

In the run-up to the 2014 season, the Ravens haven't wanted to go back over what went wrong in 2013. That has been especially true for the offensive line.

But if the Ravens run the ball on Sunday and keep Flacco mostly upright, their chances of winning go way up and no one will ask about 2013 anymore.

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