Monday, August 23, 2010

Marshal Yanda "as good of a right guard as there is in the league"

Ravens' offensive line issues becoming a concern

By Matt Vensel

August 20, 2010

Minutes after the Ravens’ 17-12 preseason win over the Panthers last Thursday, John Harbaugh stepped up to the podium and gave his post-game shout-outs.

It was only an exhibition, but he had plenty to praise. His pass rush was ferocious. His first-team offense was efficient. His patchwork secondary didn’t get torched.

Then, unprovoked, the coach turned his attention to his offensive line — which so far this summer has borne little resemblance to the reliable unit we saw a year ago — and twice scolded it with the d-word.

“I was disappointed on our pass protection,” Harbaugh said, sounding like an irritated mother. “They really couldn’t do much in the second half offensively because we couldn’t block anybody. That was disappointing.”

It was only an exhibition, but the performance of the Ravens’ offensive line was indeed disappointing — its struggles in pass protection impossible to ignore during a night otherwise filled with signs of encouragement.

The Ravens allowed six sacks against the Panthers, and starting quarterback Joe Flacco was hammered hard a couple of times by defensive end Tyler Brayton — an OK player, but not exactly Julius Peppers — in the first quarter.

Then we got news Saturday that starting right tackle Jared Gaither would miss at least two weeks with a tear in his back. That development, coupled with another shaky performance from his replacement, Oniel Cousins, has the status of the offensive line bordering on downright concern.

Considered one of the team’s biggest strengths entering the season, the line has had its development hampered by injuries during training camp. Gaither, Cousins, Matt Birk, Ben Grubbs, Tony Moll and Stefan Rodgers have all missed time in Westminster, and Joe Reitz took a major blow to his ego on that failed dunk attempt the other night.

Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and offensive line coach John Matsko have been scrambling to piece together a starting five, no doubt affecting the chemistry of the constantly changing unit.

That’s why each day at practice you’ll hear the coaches yell out “Saaaaack!” at least a half dozen times to keep the QBs from getting clobbered by color-blind pass rushers.

(Hey, credit the guys on the offensive line for helping their defensive counterparts find some much-needed swagger.)

The good news is the Ravens still have a few weeks to get things figured out before they travel to New Jersey to take on Rex Ryan and his swarming Jets defense.

Cousins is key. The third-year offensive tackle out of UTEP needs to find his footing fast to lock down the right side of the line. If not, he’ll have a bulls-eye on his back while Gaither is out. As we saw against Pittsburgh last season, teams perceive Cousins as a liability they can exploit.

If he’s not up to the task, the Ravens will be forced to do more shuffling. Marshal Yanda — who Cameron said “is as good of a right guard as there is in the league” — would have to be shifted over to tackle, something the team is trying to avoid.

Harbaugh said getting the offensive line back in sync would be a top practice priority this week, and the big men face another tough test against the Redskins this weekend.

Meanwhile, somewhere in upstate New York, Rex and the Jets will be watching — licking their chops in the hopes that Harbaugh will still be disappointed with his suddenly shaky offensive line when Week 1 rolls around.

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