Eisenberg: Winning Battles Up Front Is Top Priority

Ravens Offensive Line

It's not hard to figure out how the Ravens lost to the New England Patriots Sunday night.

They lost the turnover battle, giving up one that may have cost them points while not forcing a takeaway for the first time in 21 games.

They committed eight penalties to the Patriots' three, continuing a disturbing pattern; Baltimore now ranks in the top five in the league in penalties.

But most importantly, they were beaten up front on both sides of the ball.

Their defensive front was mostly dominated until late in the game. Their offensive line struggled. And that was against a team that came in with a 3-5 record as a longshot to make the playoffs.

No question, injuries were a factor. The Ravens were without defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams and linebacker L.J. Fort, who comprise the heart of their run-stopping efforts. And their offensive front is reeling after losing tackle Ronnie Stanley, guard Tyre Phillips and tight end Nick Boyle.

But while Head Coach John Harbaugh conceded that injuries to his team are "an issue, for sure," he also effectively said you can't use them as an excuse when things don't go your way.

It's true. Every team has injuries. If you fall short of expectations in a season, you don't get to pin an asterisk by your record with the annotation that you were "debilitated by injuries."

"We just have to overcome them," Harbaugh said.

Overcoming them, in this case, means figuring out how to get back to dominating up front, or at the very least, battling more evenly. Although the Ravens remain in good shape in the AFC playoff race with a 6-3 record, it's hard to expect much when they're getting beaten up front as soundly as they were beaten Sunday night.

Football is a complex game, yet sometimes it's stunningly simple. Late Sunday night, the Patriots revealed that Head Coach Bill Belichick laid out a basic equation for them before the game – if we dominate the line of scrimmage, we win.

"So we had confidence going into the game, as long as we executed, controlled the line of scrimmage and were physical throughout the game, we knew we could come out victorious," New England's Rex Burkhead said.

Cam Newton added, "We have our keys to victory and (Belichick) hammers it in each and every day with reminding us about, if we're going to win, this is what we're going to have to do. And I'm just excited the offensive line was able to … impose their will."

Not every team can count on prevailing physically against the Ravens, one of the NFL's toughest teams. But Baltimore's offensive line has been a work in progress all season. And on a night when the defensive front was shorthanded, the Patriots' powerful offensive line was the wrong matchup.

"If a team runs the ball like that, you usually lose," linebacker Matthew Judon said.

The Ravens have other issues. Their passing game is among the league's least productive. Other than Willie Snead IV, their wide receivers aren't making many plays. A run of injuries to cornerbacks has them scrambling at that position. Their penalty habit refuses to ebb.

Even their approach to the most fundamental aspect of the sport, snapping the ball, needs addressing.

But in my mind, getting back to winning battles up front is the top priority, especially with the Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers up next on the schedule.

Defensively, the returns of Campbell, Williams and Fort would help, but it's unclear when that'll happen. Meanwhile, Baltimore has dropped to No. 22 in the league in average yards allowed per rush.

As for the O-line, its struggles were best illustrated Sunday night when Patrick Mekari, a guard/center, wound up playing right tackle after D.J. Fluker was benched. Forget positions; to paraphrase the famous Marine slogan, the Ravens are just looking for five good men.

How they fare in that quest could go a long way toward determining how the rest of their season goes.

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