Offensive line keeping McNair standing

OWINGS MILLS – Once viewed as a glaring weak link on a team built to contend, the Baltimore Ravens' offensive line is no longer a popular object of scorn. Instead, the blocking has improved to the point where the blue-collar grunts at the line of scrimmage are beginning to emerge with a praiseworthy reputation.

That's largely because of one major accomplishment.
When quarterback Steve McNair drops back to pass, he's usually left standing and untouched.
The offensive line hasn't allowed a sack in three consecutive games, and has surrendered just four in the past six contests. Heading into Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns (4-9) at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens (10-3) have allowed just 16 sacks and are on pace to give up just 20, which would break the franchise record of 35 established in 2004.
"Those guys have been working hard," McNair said. "They believe in themselves and they believe in the schemes and their coach. Those guys are playing together, they are playing hard, they are playing physical and they are playing fast.
"It's just amazing the things they have done. In the last two games, I haven't been touched. If I have, it's because I've been running to get a first down. Those guys have been magnificent because they believe. When you have the confidence they have now, you can do that."
One difference cited by most of the principals involved with the offensive line is a renewed emphasis on fundamental blocking techniques and an increase in pass-protection drills.
There's also the simple solution of an extreme motivation to protect McNair, a three-time All-Pro and a former NFL Co-Most Valuable Player.
"They try to run through and around and over you, but as long as they don't touch the quarterback, it's okay," said left tackle Jonathan Ogden, a nine-time All-Pro. "Anytime Steve gets hit, we feel bad. We need to try to keep that from happen-ing because he's a very big part of our success, and we need to keep him healthy."
Usually, cohesiveness is the primary reason behind an offensive line playing better.
In the Ravens' case, that's not the entire story.
With left guard Edwin Mulitalo out for the season with a torn triceps tendon, rookie Jason Brown has started for the past two months.
That represented perhaps the biggest change for the Ravens since Mulitalo has been a fixture next to Ogden for the past eight years.
"We knew that Jason could come in and play, he's not as experienced as Edwin obviously," Ogden said. "There's going to be some chemistry that's not the same. Jason has done a good job, he's stepped in there and held his own and that's all you can ask for."
When right guard Keydrick Vincent strained his groin, rookie Chris Chester started three games in a row prior to Vincent returning for Sunday's 20-10 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.
Veteran center Mike Flynn, Ogden and right tackle Tony Pashos are the only three linemen to start every game this season.
"That shows you the depth of the line," Vincent said. "You take your hat off to the young guys. That means they've been paying attention in the meetings."
In a major contrast to last season where Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright were sacked a combined 42 times, playing quarterback has become a much safer occupation this year in Baltimore.
"The way that group has come together, particularly being in flux, I think it's phenomenal," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.
Another factor in the low sack totals has been McNair's presence. His mobility, knowledge of when to get rid of the ball and the addition of more designed rollouts, waggles and bootlegs since Billick fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and assumed play-calling duties seven games ago have simplified the offensive line's job.
Plus, the Ravens are running shorter pass drops than in the past and employing more play-action.
"Steve has a good pocket presence," Ogden said. "He knows when to get rid of the football. I don't think we're that much better than last year or any other year. We are getting rid of the ball and that helps limit the number of sacks you give up.
"We've worked the offense around Steve a little bit with the bootlegs and the empty sets. I think the things we do now are more to Steve's liking, so it's really been showing the past few weeks."
Since a rough start to the season following his father's death and missing training camp for personal reasons, Ogden has rebounded to play his best football in years.
Ogden has shut down some of the league's top pass rushers, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Simeon Rice, the Oakland Raiders' Derrick Burgess, the San Diego Chargers' Shawne Merriman, the Carolina Panthers' Mike Rucker, the Pitts-burgh Steelers' Joey Porter and the Chiefs' Jared Allen.
"It's a long season, but I think I finally got there somewhere around the second half," Ogden said. "Right now, I'm trying to pick the level up. We have aspirations to do a lot of big things this year."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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