One of the great mysteries off the offseason and training camp has been trying to determine exactly what the Ravens offensive line will look like when they take the field against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 10.
It started with the departure of Pro Bowl selection Ben Grubbs via free agency in March and has continued on with the uncertainty surrounding left tackle Bryant McKinnie, but as the Ravens approach their third preseason game of the summer, it’s apparent that John Harbaugh and the coaching staff need to narrow in on their decision for a starting five and where those players will line up exactly. The bizarre start to camp for McKinnie left the door open for competition at the tackle position as the Ravens have used the 32-year-old veteran as well as Michael Oher and rookie Kelechi Osemele at the tackle positions at different times.
However, conventional wisdom points to the Ravens settling in with the alignment used last year with McKinnie at left tackle and Oher on the right side, and that’s exactly what they’ve done over the last two days of practice. Harbaugh has praised the group’s versatility, but quarterback Joe Flacco acknowledges the need to start building chemistry up front.
“You want to get to a point where there’s some continuity between those guys,” Flacco said, “and they can really play together and be in sync, because that is the most important position on the field as a whole. Those guys need to kind of play off each other and get comfortable with each other.”
Considering the confusing circumstances surrounding McKinnie’s late arrival and the questions surrounding his weight and conditioning, it’s apparent the Ravens not only wanted to evaluate Oher on the left side and Osemele at right tackle but have been trying to send a message to last year’s starting left tackle that he wasn’t going to be assured of anything. And though he’s worked against reserve defenders in the first two preseason games, most still regard McKinnie as the team’s best pass blocker and his conditioning has been satisfactory, which holds more significance with the Ravens looking to use the no-huddle offense more this season.
With left guard Bobbie Williams struggling in the first two preseason games and still dealing with soreness in his surgically-repaired right ankle, Osemele has been receiving his most extensive work at left guard since organized team activities in the spring.
While Harbaugh still isn’t tipping his hand regarding McKinnie’s status, it’s beginning to look like the 6-foot-8 lineman is regaining a grip on the starting job.
“He’s had a tempo and a rhythm,” Harbaugh said. “It’s just a matter of practicing, and it’s like anybody else. He is practicing well. He’d be the first to tell you he’s not there yet. Nobody is there yet, but he is practicing well, and he is in the mix. I am looking forward to seeing how it shakes out, but he is doing a good job.”
Having played with McKinnie for seven years in Minnesota, center Matt Birk says his longtime teammate has put in the necessary work to not only get himself in better condition but to also show better agility than he has in recent years. Never regarded as a strong run blocker, McKinnie is receiving positive reviews even when the play isn’t being run to his side of the line.
“He is moving well,” Birk said. “We all get a little bit older, and you learn some things and figure some things out. Bryant has done a good job of being in shape. I think he is moving as well as I’ve seen him move in a long time on the back side. He is getting his back-side blocks and back-side cutoffs.”
Even if it looks like the Ravens are on the verge of solving the puzzle at tackle, the other question remains whether Williams can hold up inside or the rookie Osemele will eventually push him out of the starting lineup.
Rice understudy still under study
After showing impressive moves and good acceleration in his preseason debut against Detroit on Friday, rookie running back Bernard Pierce appears on the verge of taking a firm lead in the race for the backup job behind Ray Rice.
But the Ravens are still keeping their intentions for the backup job close to the vest.
“Right now, it’s a huge question mark,” running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery said. “I would like to think that I know the answer to that, ‘Who’s going to back up Ray?’ But, that’s why we are in training camp to find out who’s going to back up Ray.”
Though he only participated in nine plays and carried the ball four times for one yard, Pierce showed the ability to break tackles and good vision in his limited opportunities. More importantly, however, the rookie looked to be fully healthy after dealing with a hamstring injury for most of training camp.
“He’s learning what the NFL running back position is all about,” said Montgomery, who described Pierce as finally showing the “reckless abandon” he ran with at Temple in Friday’s preseason game. “You can see the redeeming qualities that he has is that inside ability to run in between the tackles and then able to bounce plays to the outside to drop his pads and run over people.”
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