Entering the bye week following the Ravens’ worst loss in his five years as head coach, John Harbaugh preached a message of reflection and evaluation in speaking to the media 24 hours after the 43-13 loss to the Houston Texans.
The problems are numerous on both sides of the football despite the Ravens’ 5-2 record and first-place standing in the AFC North, but one of the most concerning aspects through the first seven weeks of the season is the inconsistent play of the offensive line. Quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked four times and had several passes batted down as the Houston defense controlled the line of scrimmage.
It was the latest example of the offensive line following a strong performance with a poor outing as the Ravens held Dallas to one sack in Week 6 before allowing the Texans to make life miserable for Flacco throughout the day in Houston on Sunday.
“We’re a work in progress,” Harbaugh said. “I’m not going to put a grade on it – it’s just not what we do. We’ve done some really good things, and we’ve done some not so good things.”
The offensive line has been in line with the overall “Jekyll and Hyde” personality demonstrated by the Baltimore offense, turning in excellent performances mixed with unacceptable showings. The group struggled to protect Flacco in all three road games this season, allowing 10 sacks in those contests, and allowed the Cleveland Browns to sack the fifth-year quarterback four times in a Week 4 win in Baltimore. However, the line excelled in home wins over Cincinnati, New England, and Dallas, allowing a combined four sacks in those three games.
Beginning in training camp with the late arrival of 2011 starting left tackle Bryant McKinnie, Harbaugh emphatically stated the best five linemen would play as the Ravens used a variety of combinations in the preseason before surprisingly settling on Michael Oher at left tackle, Ramon Harewood at left guard, and rookie Kelechi Osemele at right tackle to begin the season. Veteran Bobbie Williams supplanted Harewood in the starting lineup against the Cowboys, but the Ravens appear no closer now to having a comfortable starting lineup than they did in late July.
Are more changes coming following the bye week with the offensive coaching staff now having the opportunity to take a step back from game-planning to evaluate its own personnel in a more detailed manner?
“That’s a possibility,” Harbaugh said. “We’re not benching guys and putting other guys in there and all that kind of stuff. To me, that wouldn’t be a fair description of what we’re doing. On our offensive line, we’re just trying to find a good mix. [Different] guys are probably going to be playing since we have a mix of young guys and older guys. I would guess we’re going to roll some guys in there and see how they do.”
If changes are to be made, the most logical step would be to put McKinnie back in the spot he enjoyed last season with Oher sliding back to the right tackle position he played last season. The move would also allow the Ravens to slide Osemele to the left guard spot where he received plenty of work during spring organized team activities and training camp.
McKinnie offers little as a run blocker but is arguably the Ravens’ best pass-blocking tackle. The results with Oher at the left tackle spot have been mixed as it appears the fourth-year offensive lineman is better suited to play on the right side.
And with the Ravens hell-bent on being a pass-heavy offensive attack this season — another aspect that could be tweaked during the bye — it would make sense to make the change to improve the outside pass blocking while upgrading the left guard spot where the 36-year-old Williams struggled mightily on Sunday. Of course, McKinnie’s lack of mobility and conditioning concerns would also impact the Ravens’ desire to run the no-huddle offense, which has floundered in three road games this season.
McKinnie played 18 snaps on Sunday after Osemele temporarily left the game with a sprained right ankle, but Harbaugh wouldn’t discuss the 33-year-old tackle’s play, citing a minor injury he sustained while playing. It’s no secret the organization was unhappy with McKinnie’s lack of commitment in the offseason and cut his pay less than a week before the start of the regular season.
“He got hurt. He’s had a little hip flexor issue that came up during the game,” Harbaugh said. “That’s all he played once he came out with the hip flexor, so it wasn’t that many plays to really evaluate.”
The Ravens could also look at the possibility of working Harewood back into the mix as well as second-year tackle Jah Reid, who is finally healthy after dealing with a calf injury for the better part of four months.
Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda and veteran center Matt Birk figure to be the only safe bets to remain at their current positions on the starting offensive line, but Harbaugh said even rookie Gino Gradkowski has made big strides and would be ready to play guard if needed.
Regardless of whether the Ravens make wholesale changes or simply confirm the current group as its best starting five, it’s apparent Harbaugh and the coaching staff will be taking a long look up front before their next game on Nov. 4 against the Cleveland Browns.
“We’d like to have five guys who are rock solid and who are in there and working with everybody all the time,” Harbaugh said. “It’s really just not where we’re at right now. So, let’s make the best of it and let’s work some guys in there. If we get hot with a group, then we’ll stick with it.”