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Baltimore’s offensive line troubles have been a 2-year saga of bad luck

What can they do to overcome them?

Baltimore Ravens v Washington Football Team Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

In 2019, the Baltimore Ravens trotted out Ronnie Stanley, Bradley Bozeman, Matt Skura, Marshal Yanda and Orlando Brown Jr. as their starting offensive line. Four of the five played in every meaningful game from September through the end of their season in January.

Matt Skura, the lone injured starter, suffered a season-ending knee injury in a Week 12 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams. He was replaced by Patrick Mekari, who filled in admirably.

Stanley and Yanda earned All-Pro honors and Brown Jr. played at a Pro Bowl level, an honor he earned the following season. The Ravens’ offensive line featured three bluechip-caliber players in Yanda (a likely future Hall of Fame inductee), Stanley and Brown Jr. Yanda then subsequently retired.

Baltimore sought to fill Yanda’s void through the draft and free agency, bringing in D.J. Fluker, a former first-round pick turned journeyman, as well as Tyre Phillips, a developmental draft pick with the physical tools to become a quality starter with development. Baltimore’s 2020 offensive line unit was anchored by their two bookend tackles, Stanley and Brown. With the tackles ability to give Lamar Jackson perimeter protection, the Ravens were confident in their young group on the interior to develop and catch rhythm.

The process proved effective enough to help the Ravens to a 5-1 record entering “Steelers week”, their first matchup against their AFC North rival of the season. That week, Stanley, arguably the top left tackle in the NFL, signed a five-year extension with the Ravens totaling up to $113M with $71M guaranteed. Merely 72 hours later, Stanley suffered a season-ending injury when T.J. Watt attempted to pile on Lamar Jackson in the pocket, missed, and dove right into Stanley’s left ankle, which was firmly planted as he blocked another defender.

The injury was catastrophic, as Baltimore lost arguably the most talented player on their roster before reaching the halfway point in the season. In response, Brown Jr. moved to left tackle, where he played at the University of Oklahoma and protected Baker Mayfield’s blind spot. Fluker and Phillips platooned at right tackle, while Ben Powers took over at right guard. Brown Jr. played at a high level, having the fifth lowest “blown block” percentage of any left tackle playing at least 100 snaps from Week 8 through the end of the season, per Sports Info Solutions.

This, in addition to Stanley’s extension, caused Brown Jr. to seek a trade, desiring to honor a promise he made to his late father. According to Brown Jr., he decided he would leave Baltimore the very day that Stanley signed his extension. The Ravens then traded the the former third-round pick in April ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft. The return netted first-round pick (No. 31 overall) Odafe Oweh, Ben Cleveland (No. 94 overall), a 2022 fourth-round pick (either No. 136 or No. 144) and a 2022 fifth-round selection. The Chiefs, in addition to Brown Jr., got Nick Bolton (No. 57 overall) and a 2022 fifth-round selection.

Baltimore didn’t draft an offensive tackle in the 2021 NFL Draft, opting to sign former Pittsburgh Steeler Alejando Villanueva to make a transition from left tackle to right tackle. According to Pro Football Focus, Villanueva hasn’t played a snap at right tackle since 2014 (four total snaps on the right side). Stanley returned to the practice field two weeks into training camp, which gave hope that he would have enough time to be prepared for the start of the 2021 season.

Those plans proved futile (so far). In the Ravens’ season opener, Stanley blew two blocks (both pass blocks). While that doesn’t sound so bad, he only blew two blocks total last year in 295 blocking snaps, which goes to show how talented he is when healthy. Worse, Alejandro Villanueva had six blown blocks in his debut, tied for the third most of any player in Week 1 (Dion Dawkins, Daryl Williams and A.J. Cann had more). Villanueva blew a block on 9.1% of his snaps, which was also the third most of any player.

Adding insult to injury, or rather, injury to insult, Stanley has now missed the last two days of practice. He won’t play this Sunday when the Ravens face the Kansas City Chiefs and could miss much more time.

Now, Villanueva will return to the left side (for now) after not taking any snaps on that side throughout the offseason. Phillips, who won the opening day spot at left guard over Powers and Cleveland, was placed on injured reserve after suffering a knee injury in Week 1. Baltimore is shuffling three of their five starters from a week ago — only one week into the season. Not ideal.

It’s easy to question the Ravens front office for neglecting to acquire an offensive tackle at all in the draft. However, there’s only three tackles drafted after Rashod Bateman who started Week 1: Liam Eichenberg (Miami Dolphins), Sam Cosmi (Washington Football Team) and Dan Moore (Pittsburgh Steelers). Pro Football Focus graded Cosmi a 15.8 out of 100 in pass protection, Eichenberg had two penalties (one accepted) and a blown block, while Moore blew two blocks. They simply weren’t positioned well to nab a starting-caliber rookie offensive tackle, seeing as only one was drafted within 20 picks after they selected Odafe Oweh.

It may be more reasonable to examine the fact that the Ravens haven’t drafted an offensive tackle (Tyre Phillips was announced at guard) since Greg Senat in 2018. The Ravens drafted an All-Pro in Stanley and a sure thing in Brown Jr. Simple bad luck has found them without either as they prepare to face the Chiefs, who have beat the Ravens in three consecutive regular seasons. Brown Jr. so badly wanting to play left tackle was unforeseen. Not to fault him in any way for his journey and desires, but Ryan Ramczyck, Mike McGlinchy, Taylor Moton, Tristain Wirfs and La’el Collins have no qualms about playing on the right side.

As luck would have it, Baltimore doesn’t face a young rebuilding team in Week 2. They face the two-time defending AFC Champions. These Chiefs will send star pass-rushers Frank Clark and Chris Jones at Mekari and Villanueva. As luck would also have it, Nick Boyle, the Ravens top perimeter blocker, isn’t ready to return from injury to assist. He’s on the injured reserve through at least Week 3.

The Ravens can do their best to utilize Patrick Ricard and Eric Tomlinson to chip, assisting their tight ends. The use of screens, RPO’s and other quick passes can also avoid the Chiefs ability to create pressure. Baltimore threw two screens in Las Vegas, both of which attached to RPO’s. They would be wise to increase that number, as well as their RPO usage substantially. The Ravens used three total RPO’s against Las Vegas, all on first down and in the first half.

Dak Prescott, for example, threw 11 passes against the defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Similarly, Prescott was without All-Pro right guard Zack Martin. The next closest offenses in terms of RPO volume were Miami (6) and Pittsburgh (6). Dallas also threw eight screens (most in the NFL), five of which were from RPO’s. Baltimore should take a page out of Dallas’ playbook to mitigate pressure. Cleveland threw two screens against Kansas City and gained a first down on each.

The other aspect is effectively running the ball, Baltimore’s bread and butter. Two major bright spots in a cloudy sky were Bradley Bozeman and Kevin Zeitler. While NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger highlighted some of their growing pains, neither the center nor the right guard blew a block on Monday night, per Sports Info Solutions.

Baltimore will need to follow the same plan they had last year following Stanley’s injury. They need to incorporate man/gap concepts using pullers to gain number advantages in the run game, as Mekari isn’t built to move defenders off the ball in zone concepts.

If Ronnie Stanley is able to recover, whether in a week or six weeks, the Ravens offensive line can turn into a solid, formidable unit. Perhaps the Ravens, who already have six starters on injured reserve, can take a page from Ted Lasso’s playbook and have a ceremony to get the bad spirits out of their locker room.