The play of the Ravens' offensive line Sunday against the Cleveland Browns did not look much better on the surface than it has in previous weeks.
Quarterback Joe Flacco was under pressure for much of the game and the ground attack was stagnant again. Running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce had little room to work, finishing with 28 total rushing yards.
The output was not what the Ravens wanted, but when Head Coach John Harbaugh watched the film from the game, he saw improvement in the unit.
"I feel like our offensive line blocked a lot better than the result might have shown in terms of number of yards," he said. "When you watch the tape, there are a lot of really good blocks going on there."
The Ravens went with the shotgun spread attack against the Browns, which is the direction they want to take as an offense. In that no-huddle approach, the responsibility is often on the quarterback to read the defenses and determine what play to run at the line of scrimmage.
Cleveland stacked the box for much of game Sunday in an effort to stop the run, creating tough matchups for the line against a talented defensive front.
"It's not just the offensive line; our offensive line blocked well yesterday," Harbaugh said. "When you see it on tape, you'd have to say that. It's a team effort. It's running backs, it's quarterbacks, it's wide receivers – it's everybody."
The play of the offensive line has been an issue for much of the season, as the running game ranks 29th in the NFL with an average of 71.6 yards per game. Flacco has been sacked 25 times this year, tied for 11th in the league.
The offensive line has undergone significant transition this year, as three of the five starters from last year's Super Bowl team are now gone. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie was replaced by Eugene Monroe in the starting lineup and eventually traded to Miami. Gino Gradkowski took over the center job for veteran Matt Birk when he retired.
A.Q. Shipley made his first career start at left guard last week after the Ravens decided to shut down Kelechi Osemele for the season because of a back injury.
"A.Q.* *is a pit bull. He's a fighter in there," Harbaugh said. "He's smart, he knows what to do, and he plays with good technique. We're pleased with the way he played."
According to the statistical analysis website Pro Football Focus (PFF), Shipley received the lowest grade of any player along the offensive line (-2.1). He particularly struggled in run blocking, and also received a negative mark for a false start penalty.
"Like all players, there were two or three times where, physically, his opponent got the best of him, but there were a number of times where he got the best of his opponent," Harbaugh said. "And almost every time he was on his assignment and doing a good job in getting after it and playing hard."
The best player on the offensive line according to PFF was Monroe, whose 3.6 grade was the best of any player on the team. Gradkowski had a 1.4 grade, the third best on the offense.
"We were prepared for what they brought," Monroe said. "I think everything is in place. You can't win when you set yourself back with penalties. You can't win when you set yourself back with turnovers. And I think that once that happens, this thing will turn around."
Flacco spent much of the game moving around in the pocket and finished the day with five sacks and eight quarterback hits.
Despite the pressure he was under, the pass protection was better than it has been at other times this season. The Ravens ranked sixth-best in the NFL on Sunday in terms of pass blocking efficiency, according to PFF.
Harbaugh stressed that organizing pass protection is the "most complicated part of football," and that developing in that area is a work in progress.
"We need Joe to take fewer hits, and we're going to continue to chase that," Harbaugh said. "We'll do that by getting the ball out quickly, continuing to work on our technique in pass protection, and picking up blitzes."