Wednesday, November 17, 2010

More than a stopgap, Yanda turning into a force at right tackle

By Dan Kolko

November 17, 2010

As you get settled in this morning, I'd like you to take a second and think about where the Ravens would be without Marshal Yanda.

Go ahead, I'll wait.

OK, you good?

Here's my take on that topic: It wouldn't be pretty.

When Jared Gaither came down with a back injury in training camp which essentially ended his season before it began, the Ravens had a huge issue on their hands. How would they fill the right tackle spot?

The coaches turned to Yanda, deciding to move him from right guard to the vacant tackle position. Not only has Yanda gotten the job done, he's been the Ravens' saving grace.

The fourth-year offensive lineman's impact can't just be measured by statistics; it's measured by what he has allowed the Ravens to do offensively.

With Yanda locking down the edge, quarterback Joe Flacco has had time to survey his receiving options and look to stretch the field. Tight end Todd Heap and running back Ray Rice haven't been needed to stay in and block as much as some expected, allowing those two to run more routes and get involved in the passing game.

Plus, and probably most importantly, thanks to Yanda's play, Flacco hasn't been forced to peel himself up off the turf after big hits too frequently this season, which he and the coaches certainly appreciate.

Those in the Ravens' organization, notably offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, know that the job that Yanda has done adjusting to his new role as Baltimore's starting right tackle simply can't be overstated.

"I've said it before - Marshal Yanda is a Pro Bowl right guard. And now, he's playing, and it shouldn't have surprised me because he played tackle in college, but he's playing like a Pro Bowl right tackle." Cameron told me recently. "So what does that mean? To me, he's a heck of a football player. He's a Pro Bowl player, no matter where we play him."

Yanda played right tackle the majority of his college career at Iowa, and he saw action at the position during his rookie year in 2007 and then on a handful of occasions last season when Gaither was hurt and the Ravens needed to make adjustments to their starting lineup.

But since the start of the 2008 season, the Ravens viewed Yanda as their solution at right guard. He was tough, agile for a guy of his size, and had a hard-nosed nature which fit well at the guard spot.

Yanda had a fantastic 2009 season, and the Ravens envisioned him locking down the position for years to come. But when Gaither came down with a lingering back injury in training camp, the Ravens needed to make a decision.

Instead of tossing an inexperienced guy like Oniel Cousins into the fire and expecting him to carry the weight of Gaither's absence, the Ravens turned to Yanda for help at right tackle yet again, and slid Chris Chester into Yanda's right guard spot.

The move from guard to tackle is by no means an easy transition, but Yanda made it seamlessly. As a result, right tackle has gone from a position of concern to a position of complete stability.

"I think for some guys, [moving from guard to tackle] is really hard," Cameron said. "But the Ravens' culture here is guys playing multiple positions. We start training guys for multiple positions from day one. Marshal was a tackle when he got here, we moved him down inside and he played at a high level. Now he's put on 10, 15 pounds and he's back out at tackle and he's doing well."

Here's another example of how versatile Yanda is: He's also the Ravens' third center behind Matt Birk and Chris Chester despite never playing the position in college.

So what makes Yanda so good? What has allowed him to move from position to position and perform at such a high level wherever he lines up?

"Toughness," Cameron says. "Mental and physical toughness. There's no substitute for that. In the National Football League, without those two things, good luck. And he's got it."

Yanda's been so solid, in fact, that he's seemingly eclipsed Michael Oher as the Ravens' most effective tackle.
While Oher has struggled at times at his new left tackle position, Yanda has been a consistent force on the right side.

It's unclear at this point exactly how the Ravens will choose to utilize Yanda in the future. He can play both guard and tackle at such a high level that he gives the team flexibility with how they attack the free agent market and the draft this offseason.

Do they bring in a quality right tackle and move Yanda back to guard? Do they keep Yanda at tackle and stick with Chester or someone else at the guard spot?

Cameron isn't worried about next season just yet, but he says that for the time being, the Ravens are thrilled with how Yanda has helped stabilize the right side of their offensive line.

"He's our right tackle," Cameron said. "Chris Chester is playing at a high level at right guard, so that helps. We don't really need to predict the future right now, but right now, there's not a scenario that puts [Yanda] back at guard for this season that I can think of. Whereas before, with the possibility of Gaither coming back, there was a possibility that if something happened to Chester, he'd go back to guard.

"But right now, I don't think there any scenario where he would go back to guard. He's playing extremely well."

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