One of the keys to the Baltimore Ravens' playoff run that led them to a Super Bowl victory was the reworking of their offensive line. The Week 17 toe injury suffered by left guard Jah Reid sparked a shuffling that affected positions beyond his own, to positive results.
With Reid out during the playoffs, Kelechi Osemele was moved from right tackle to left guard. Regular-season left tackle Michael Oher was moved into the right tackle position as a result, and Bryant McKinnie—who played only 132 regular-season snaps—was made the new starting left tackle. Only Marshal Yanda at right guard and Matt Birk at center retained their starting jobs from the regular season to the playoffs.
The moves paid off, with quarterback Joe Flacco being sacked just four times during the postseason while throwing for 1,140 yards with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. Running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce combined for 508 rushing yards and two scores of their own. It appeared the Ravens had finally found the magic formula of offensive linemen to help their team move the ball down the field.
Now that the 2013 season approaches, the question lingers about the what the Ravens will choose to do about their offensive line this year. They caught lightning in a bottle when they shuffled their linemen during the playoffs last year, but this season things are different.
Birk has retired, and Yanda has just returned to practice after offseason shoulder surgery. McKinnie again showed up to training camp overweight, and two other sources of protection and blocking—tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson—are both sidelined by injuries (Pitta potentially for the season, Dickson for the time being). What worked for four games last winter may not work this September.
In Baltimore's first preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the lineup was mostly unchanged except for Reid filling in at right guard for Yanda and Gino Gradkowski stepping in as the team's new center. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), this group of starters gave up one sack in the game, attributed to McKinnie.
Once Yanda is fully ready to participate in all drills at training camp, he'll likely take over the right guard job, considering he was Pro Football Focus' second-ranked offensive guard in 2012. Reid will move back into a depth role, joining Jack Cornell and Ramon Harewood as those who should remain on the roster to fill in if any of the starters become injured.
Depth at guard is generally solid for the Ravens at present; tackle, however, is more concerning. Reid, Osemele, Cornell and Harewood are all capable of playing both guard and tackle, but in terms of true depth, only Ricky Wagner is a pure tackle. Wagner, however is a rookie, so his ability to take on a starting workload is questionable for 2013. And all have varying levels of talent at the position.
Free-agent signing David Mims is intriguing—the second-year player is a monster at 6'8", 335 pounds and comes to Baltimore after spending 2012 with the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that ran the ball heavily last year. Considering the issues at offensive tackle depth, Mims could make the 53-man roster this year. Again, however, Mims is an unproven talent like Wagner, and the learning curve will be steep if he's asked to step up for any reason.
Tackle is such a concern because the two starters, while capable, have been erratic in the past. Oher is much better off as a right tackle, but the possibility still exists he moves back to left if McKinnie falters. McKinnie, remember, was just a mere contributor before the playoffs last season and thought to be a greater liability than Oher on the left, even though Oher's 10 regular-season sacks allowed was the highest total among Baltimore's offensive linemen.
The Ravens are clearly banking on their starting-capable depth at tackle being adequate enough to get them through the season and that Oher and McKinnie can handle their assignments without struggling this year. And, simply put, they may just have no choice but to roll with this assumption, especially if anything happens to the two starting guards, causing some of the guard-tackle types on the roster to be moved around.
At center, the Ravens are fine. There is Gradkowski, the presumed heir-apparent to Birk, along with A.Q. Shipley, for whom the Ravens traded with the Indianapolis Colts this offseason. Shipley will be the starter in Thursday's preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons, signaling that the battle for the job hasn't yet been won by either player.
In the longer term, as well, the Ravens should be in good shape on their offensive line. They have a number of young players—Osemele, Cornell, Gradkowski, Wagner, Shipley, Mims—alongside five other players who are either one-year veterans or rookies who can come into their own with time.
Granted, not all can stay, but some can land on the practice squad if they are worth developing. But for the short term, there are depth concerns that the Ravens may have to address mainly by keeping their fingers crossed that they don't suffer any key injuries or that present starters don't struggle.
With Anquan Boldin gone, Pitta and now Dickson injured and no clear No. 2 receiver yet stepping up, the Ravens may need to rely on their running backs more heavily this year than in the last. Having a strong and stable offensive line is a major key to the successes Rice and Pierce can string together on the ground.
According to Pro Football Focus, Oher was the weakest among Baltimore's offensive tackles as a run-blocker last year; however, Football Outsiders (subscription required) notes they only ran 13 percent of their run plays off the left tackle (where Oher spent the majority of 2012).
Most of their runs (52 percent) were between the guards, and their guards were certainly better at run blocking than Oher. There's also the matter of fullback Vonta Leach to consider. As the best lead-blocker in the NFL, he can more than make up for any run-blocking deficiencies that may arise on Baltimore's offensive line.
Ultimately, the Ravens offensive line situation is much better than many other teams in the NFL (the San Diego Chargers come to mind), with mostly good starters paving the way for both Flacco to have enough time to pass and for Rice and Pierce to find substantial holes through which to run. Their depth is questionable, owing mainly to youth, but there aren't many (or any) teams in the league that can boast ideal offensive line depth, with at least five backups with enough talent to be starters.
Questions remain about the full-season reliability of tackles McKinnie and Oher, so they'll be worth extra scrutiny as the season approaches and finally begins. But the state of the Baltimore Ravens offensive line is strong enough that worries should be minimal this year.