For the third straight year, the Ravens' playoff exit and offensive struggles fall somewhat on Baltimore's offensive line. The Ravens got outmatched up front in the 2018 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers and knocked back in the 2019 defeat to the Tennessee Titans.
This time, wild snaps and trouble handling the Buffalo Bills' pressure caused the biggest problems for an offense that moved the ball fairly well but still scored only three points. The middle and right side of Baltimore's offensive line did not have its best outing.
The instant reaction is that the Ravens need improvements in the trenches. But how much of that was one bad game versus an anomaly? And do the errant snaps warrant the investment required for a change?
Asked last week whether the Ravens have the right offensive linemen in the building already or whether they'll need to address the position this offseason, Head Coach John Harbaugh said "the honest answer is, yes and yes."
"Yes, we have the guys we need. We have really good players, and you saw them play well, and they're going to get better. So, if we went into next year with the guys we had … We built a really effective offensive line; I'm quite sure of that," Harbaugh said. "But yes, we want other guys, too. We want to build the best players that we can in there, so we're going to be looking to do that."
The Ravens have built a young offensive line by drafting at least two linemen four of the past five years, and several have become starters (Ronnie Stanley, Orlando Brown Jr., Bradley Bozeman, Ben Powers and Tyre Phillips). Veteran free-agent addition D.J. Fluker (29) was the oldest player on the line and he was a part-time starter.
The place where Baltimore has not invested much in recent years is at center, where they have three undrafted players in Patrick Mekari, Matt Skura and Trystan Colon-Castillo. But regardless of their draft position, each has played good football over their young careers.
"What I like about the offensive line is we have a lot of really good, nice, young players," General Manager Eric DeCosta said. "We're not sure who those guys are going to be [and if] they are going to emerge and be the starters for us, but we've got good depth – what I would call shallow depth. We have some guys that can play. A lot of guys have played for us – a lot of young players are emerging talents."
The Ravens ran the ball better than any team in the league – or in history – over the past two seasons. But when asked about ways to improve the passing game, the first thing DeCosta said was "what we have to do is get better up front with pass protection."
DeCosta pointed to the loss of Stanley as a big part of the pass protection issues and, in general, the offensive line "really battled versus some adversity this year." The question is whether the Ravens general manager believes there's more help needed outside of Stanley's return next season.
The most glaring issue at center this season were the snaps. After returning from last year's season-ending knee injury, Skura lost his starting job midway through the season after errant snaps during a monsoon in New England. Mekari stepped in without a hiccup, and Colon-Castillo played well as an injury replacement starter. But when Mekari had trouble with his snaps in Buffalo's wind and crowd noise, it put a spotlight back on the center position.
"We certainly have to do a better job of getting the ball back to the quarterback," DeCosta said. "We think we have some options at the position, and we've got some good, young players."
The last time the Ravens invested big resources into the center position was when they signed Matt Birk to a four-year deal in 2009. He helped the Ravens win a Super Bowl in 2012 and retired after. Baltimore's most acclaimed starter since was sixth-round pick Ryan Jensen, but he left in 2018 when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offered him a big contract. Since then, the Ravens have started only undrafted centers.
What's important to remember is how the Ravens' offensive line was playing heading into Saturday's playoff game, including at center. Baltimore's run game surge down the stretch helped boost them into the playoffs, and that was in part because of the gelling of the offensive line.
Looking ahead, the Ravens have one of the best tackle duos in the NFL in Stanley and Brown. Bozeman has turned into one of the league's better left guards and works well in the Ravens' system as a pulling blocker. The loss of potential future Hall of Famer Marshal Yanda stung for the first half of the season, but in his second NFL year, Powers eventually earned the job and was strong down the stretch.
Skura is a pending unrestricted free agent. The Ravens could re-sign him, let Mekari and Colon-Castillo battle it out for the starting job, or add a veteran or draft pick this offseason. Baltimore also has Ben Bredeson, a fourth-round pick out of Michigan last year.
So how much of an investment do the Ravens need on the offensive line this season? Is it more important than upgrading other spots or putting that money toward retaining one of the team's other young stars?
The Ravens aren't going to answer those questions with specifics, but Harbaugh reiterated his belief that having a strong offensive line is essential, especially for a team that runs the ball so much.
"Our offensive line is, to me, a primary piece to what we try to do, and we need to build the very best offensive line that we can," Harbaugh said. "To me, it's a major priority. It's a major emphasis, [and] it will be a major focal point, always, in how we coach, teach, and how we build the personnel. [It's] priority one, for sure."