OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens are getting healthier along the offensive line as veteran center Matt Birk returned to practice on a limited basis Saturday, but what the starting line will look like in September remains in question.
Following a shaky first-half performance in the preseason opener against the Falcons in which the Ravens failed to collected a first down on their first three offensive series, many wondered if we’d see the return of Bryant McKinnie to the starting group with Michael Oher sliding over to the right side to begin gaining continuity.
However, the Ravens continued to use Oher at left tackle with rookie Kelechi Osemele lining up on the right side during Saturday’s practice. Rookie Gino Gradkowski continued to work at center while Birk will increase his workload over the next few days.
Playing with the second unit well into the second half on Thursday, McKinnie continued to receive work with the second-team offense and occasional reps with the starting unit for Saturday’s practice. Coach John Harbaugh is pleased with McKinnie’s progress, but there are no clear signs that the veteran is on the verge of regaining his starting position.
“He’s practiced well,” Harbaugh said. “He’s been durable; he’s made it through all the practices that he’s been in. He played in the game a good number of reps. He’s competing like all those guys are right now, and it’s a competition on the offensive line.”
McKinnie appeared solid in pass coverage and did not seem to labor at any point against the Falcons. Though never regarded as a strong run blocker, the 32-year-old still appears to be the Ravens’ best option in pass protection on the left side.
While many assumed Oher would be the biggest factor in possibly unseating McKinnie in the starting lineup, the 2012 second-round pick Osemele has impressed at right tackle and fared well against the Atlanta starting defense. Not only was it Osemele’s first NFL action, but the Iowa State product had never even attended an NFL game before playing Thursday.
“He played well. He was a rookie, and that was a first experience for him but he handled it really well,” Harbaugh said. “He was calm, didn’t make mistakes, didn’t jump offside, had his assignments right, blocked people well for the most part. I thought he acquitted himself very well.”
While conventional thinking points to the Ravens ultimately reverting back to last year’s alignment at the offensive tackle position, Harbaugh has been adamant in maintaining there’s an open competition. He proclaimed Oher to be his starting left tackle until further notice when McKinnie didn’t report for the first four days of training camp and hasn’t made any comments to deviate from that ever since.
Harbaugh has complimented McKinnie’s work ethic since he reported for camp on July 29, but his general comments about competition during training camp sounded like they could easily have been directed toward last year’s starting left tackle.
“This program is built on competition,” Harbaugh said. “The best guys play, and the guys who are the best are the guys who play the best — presently. You go by what you see, not by what you remember or what you’re told.”
McClellan’s stock rising, Kindle still shaking off rust
Linebacker Courtney Upshaw practiced again on a limited basis Saturday after sitting out Thursday’s game. In his absence, Albert McClellan appears to be gaining ground at the rush linebacker position and started in Upshaw’s place at rush linebacker.
He and Sergio Kindle have rotated reps opposite Paul Kruger, who has primarily manned the strongside backer position, but McClellan fared better than Kindle against Atlanta on Friday. Possessing the ability to play all four linebacker positions as well as to put his hand on the ground as a pass rusher, McClellan continues to turn heads as a defensive player after becoming a special teams standout last season.
McClellan spent the 2010 season on the practice squad after being signed as a rookie free agent out of Marshall in 2010. Now, it appears McClellan is beginning to push Upshaw, who hasn’t practiced without limitations since spraining his shoulder on July 28.
“He’s competing for a starting job,” Harbaugh said. “He’s done nothing to make you think he couldn’t be a starter the way he played and the way he’s practiced. I mean, he’s played really, really well, so that makes it interesting.”
Kindle received extensive playing time against Atlanta but displayed poor positioning on several running plays and struggled to get off blocks when he was asked to rush the passer.
The Ravens will continue to evaluate the 2010 second-round pick, but it’s become apparent he’s fallen behind McClellan on the depth chart.
“He started off a little shaky [on Thursday],” Harbaugh said. “He had a couple missed assignments that led to some of their conversions a little bit. That was to be expected. We knew we were going to have that in this game. We’re going to play him a lot in the preseason. He hasn’t played much football in a long time, so he needs to play. He did pretty well.”
Pierce back at practice