Last Sunday, Tampa Bay Buccaneers center Ryan Jensen got into a heated sideline argument with quarterback Jameis Winston. Sideline spats happen seemingly even week, but between a center and his quarterback? That’s new.
The exchange seemed to surprise the FOX TV announcer, but it was par for the course to any Ravens fan who saw the clip. It certainly didn’t surprise Ravens center Matthew Skura, who played next to Jensen last year in Baltimore.
“Yeah, I saw it,” Skura said. “I thought it was kind of funny.”
Jensen’s wild red hair and the Buccaneers will return to M&T Bank Stadium this Sunday. While it will be fun to see Jensen in action again, the reunion will also highlight another fact: the Ravens have done just fine without him.
That’s thanks to the emergence of Skura, who has gone about it his own way.
“He was a starter for 16 games last year and I think people got used to his style and knowing that there’s going to be two or three scrums during the game,” Skura said with a chuckle. “It’s not to say I’m not an aggressive person, but our styles are different and both work.”
Jensen built a reputation for his emotional and physical playing style during his five years in Baltimore, and fans loved him for it.
Jensen was always the guy to bet on for who starts the first fight at training camp. He took pride in being labeled an “annoying mosquito.” He drew acclaim when he buried Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso into the turf after Alonso hit a sliding Joe Flacco in the head.
After being among the league’s best centers last year, Jensen signed a four-year, $42 million contract with the Buccaneers last offseason, making him the highest-paid center in the league.
The Ravens were once again looking for a starting center, just like the year before. The man who stepped up is nothing like Jensen, but has been just as effective, if not more so, this season.
Are there any two people more different than Skura and Jensen?
“Maybe not,” said left guard James Hurst, who played next to both. “They’re pretty different, but definitely both good players in their own right, for sure.
“Jensen is an emotional player and that brings so much to his game, so much emotion to the offense. Matt is very level-headed, calm, cool and collected. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 90-yard touchdown or a sack/fumble, his emotions are going to be straight down the middle. They are very different, but at the same time, both of those personalities can do well at this position in the league.”
Skura was a three-year starter at Duke who served as a team captain his senior year. He graduated with a degree in psychology, along with a certificate in human development. Jensen starred at Colorado State-Pueblo and likes to shoot big guns.
The two are still friends and will say their hellos before Sunday’s game, but expect Skura to quickly get back to work on his craft.
“Matt Skura has done an outstanding job,” Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “Smart, tough – has worked himself into a heck of a center.”
Originally undrafted in 2016, Skura spent his rookie year on the practice squad, then made the 53-man roster as a sophomore. He was inserted as Baltimore’s starting right guard, replacing injured Marshal Yanda, early last year. While Skura wasn’t up to Yanda’s level, he held his own.
This year, Skura beat out all challengers for the job and there’s been no issues to speak of.
With Skura in the middle of the Ravens’ offensive line, Baltimore has given up the seventh-fewest (25) sacks in the NFL and have found their running game. The Ravens now rank fourth in the league in rushing yards per game (134.2).
“Jensen is really strong, like freakishly strong. The way he plays is so aggressive, and some of his success is based on his ability to be the attacker and put them in a defensive position,” Hurst said. “Matt is more of a technician. He’s really concerned with his footwork, his hand placement. He knows the importance of that on every play and he uses that consistency to his advantage.”
Asked how he feels he’s done so far with the starting center job, Skura said he’s made improvements each week but there’s still a lot of room for him to grow.
Part of his success, he says, comes from the cohesion he and the other offensive linemen have built. They all go out to dinner at a Baltimore restaurant once a week. Some weeks, certain guys can’t make it, but it’s become a tradition.
Although Skura is the starting point of the Ravens’ offensive line communication, he usually isn’t the one picking the restaurant. Usually left tackle Ronnie Stanley complains enough that they all just go wherever he wants, Hurst joked.
“I think a part of a good run game is having a good center and having an offensive line with a lot of cohesion,” Skura said. “I think that’s been a big part of our success in the run and pass game. We’re a very tight-knit group. Those little things [like going out for dinner] really do help, especially when things get hard or someone makes a mistake. We’re always there supporting each other.”
The Ravens offensive line has become a strength of the team during the past four games. They’re paving the way for a ground-and-pound attack.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay has struggled to run the ball (27th in the NFL in yards per game). Jensen leads the Buccaneers in penalties by a wide margin. The sideline spat with Winston came after Jensen was flagged for holding, then unnecessary roughness, on the same drive.
Skura has done the job, just with little fanfare, which suits his unassuming personality just fine.
“When you lose a great player, you never really know what’s going to happen,” Hurst said. “But Matt’s done a great job coming in. He’s a stable presence in there. You always know what you’re going to get with him – really, really hard worker, smart guy. We can trust him.”