Ravens saying all the right things amid doubts on offensive line

August 29, 2011 | Luke Jones

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It felt a bit like the start of training camp again on Saturday as the Ravens finally had their first look at the offensive line expected to line up against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 11.

The newly-signed Bryant McKinnie — all 370 pounds of him — lined up at left tackle while center Matt Birk saw his first work since undergoing knee surgery on Aug. 2. It all looks great on paper, the former Pro Bowl tackle anchoring the blind side and Michael Oher returning to the right side where he dominated during his rookie season two years ago.

But, with Pittsburgh looming less than two weeks away, will the Ravens’ new offensive line — featuring only two starters playing the same position as last season — be ready in time?

“Absolutely. We don’t have a choice,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “This is pro football, and I think we all know what that means. No one really cares. No one cares. By the time that game comes around, the expectation for the player, for us as coaches, for the fans is we’re ready to play. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. No excuses. We’re getting ready to play.”

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The biggest question is McKinnie, kicked to the curb after being coddled for nine years in Minnesota and showing up to training camp weighing nearly 400 pounds just a few short weeks ago. His past success is unquestioned, but Pro Bowl tackles just aren’t lying around on the market in late August without major red flags being raised.

Asking McKinnie to be in shape — the 31-year-old wants to be down to 355 pounds in the regular season — is one thing, but expecting him to keep linebacker James Harrison away from Joe Flacco in the September heat of Baltimore nearly sounds too ambitious at this late stage of the preseason.

“Let’s just set the bar high, expect him to know everything, and we’ll go from there,” coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s a veteran. He knows the pass protection. He know the run plays and the running. He’s got to translate the techniques a little bit. But, mainly, he’s got to translate the terminology, and that is tough in the heat of battle.”

It get’s no hotter in combat than the Steelers coming to town, so McKinnie will receive his Charm City baptism right off the bat. For now, the 2009 Pro Bowl tackle is saying all the right things, but the time for talk will be over shortly.

“A dominant player that is trying to be the best at his position,” said McKinnie when asked what fans should expect from him this season.

McKinnie’s former teammate in Minnesota is facing questions of his own while continuing to work his way back from surgery to clean out the bursa sac in his left knee. Birk has participated in two straight practices, increasing his workload on Monday.

Birk maintains his goal is to be ready for Sept. 11, all but ruling out his availability for Thursday’s preseason finale in Atlanta. However, it remains to be seen whether the surgical procedure will be successful in alleviating the knee issues that plagued Birk for much of last season.

If all goes to plan, will Birk be ready against Pittsburgh?

“I think so,” Birk said. “Hopefully, you won’t have any setbacks. If everything progresses like we hope, yeah.”

The Ravens lack any experienced option behind the 14-year veteran, as practice squad veteran Bryan Mattison has starter the first three preseason games at center. Though the former Ravens coordinator’s son has done an admirable job in a starting role, he’s hardly someone on which you can rely if Birk proves unable to go during the regular season.

It remains to be seen how much playing time the starting offensive line will receive against the Falcons, as both Harbaugh and Cameron have preached the need to find a balance between gaining continuity and maintaining health for the start of the regular season. The effect of the lockout has also been felt throughout the preseason, altering teams’ routines and playing-time preferences throughout the preseason.

Whether the starters play a few series or are largely held out in the final preseason game, it’s obvious where most work will be accomplished between now and that moment when the Ravens take the field before 71,000 fans at M&T Bank Stadium on Sept. 11.

“The most important thing for me is how we practice,” Cameron said. “Going against our defense is, for the most part, in a lot of ways better than any preseason game that we can play. That being said, I think in the next couple days we’re going to decide if that’s in our best interest [to play against Atlanta].

“Going against Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis, that can get our guys ready to play.”

It’s a great idea in theory, one the Ravens will hope to take full advantage of over the next two weeks.

The notion fits with everything else about this offensive line: it looks good on paper.

The Ravens are saying all the right things. The upside for the offensive line is there.

But talking about it and actually being able to do it — against the Steelers of all teams — are two different things entirely.

Visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault to hear from Cam Cameron, Chuck Pagano, and Jerry Rosburg following Monday’s practice as well as comments from John Harbaugh, Michael Oher, and Bryant McKinnie over the weekend.