Ravens' line making fast progress

OWINGS MILLS -- It was a chaotic daily mixture of confusion and contusions as the Baltimore Ravens' offensive line took a vicious beating at training camp from their aggressive defensive counterparts. With both starting offensive tackles sidelined, there was precious little time for the quarterbacks to throw in practice and not much unoccupied real estate for the running backs to operate.

Taskmaster offensive line coach John Matsko delivered a ton of scolding lectures on how to block.

One month later, it's a different story altogether as a young offensive line has displayed talent and maturation through two games.

The Ravens (2-0) are tied with the Denver Broncos for allowing just one sack, the fewest in the league.

"We're young and hard-working guys," Ravens center Jason Brown said. "We're never going to feel that we have arrived. We're going to come back and prepare just as hard for the Steelers. We have to stay humble, that's a key to success."

A bruising running game is ranked second overall in the NFL as a physical approach has defined the Ravens averaging 190 rushing yards per game with gaping holes opened up for running backs Willis McGahee and Ray Rice and fullback Le'Ron McClain.

The Ravens have rushed for 380 yards on 90 carries for a 4.2 average with five touchdowns. The 6-foot, 260-pound McClain has set the tone with a team-high 152 yards and two touchdowns on 36 bulldozing carries as a heavy-duty tailback.

"Those holes are huge," McClain said. "You know they're big when I can fit through them. They've come a long way since training camp. We all have. Everybody is on the same page now."

Heading into the season, the entire first-team offensive line started just one game together in the preseason finale against the Atlanta Falcons when right tackle Adam Terry and left tackle Jared Gaither returned from injuries.

Now, a youthful group whose ability and toughness were in question last month is drawing compliments.

Between Terry, Gaither, Brown and offensive guards Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda, the Ravens' average age upfront is 24 years and two months as one of the youngest offensive lines in the league.

"They want to be good, they don't quit," fullback Lorenzo Neal said. "They keep coming and coming and coming. They have that attitude. They're young and they don't know how good they can be yet."

From a technique standpoint, the Ravens' line has come a long way with improved footwork and better hand placement on blocks.

They've done a solid job of cutting off hefty defensive linemen like Cleveland Browns nose guard Shaun "Big Baby" Rogers, a 6-foot-4, 350-pounder.

Brown and the two gritty guards have held up well inside on double-team blocks and have consistently reached the second level to peel off linebackers. Terry and Gaither have prevented rookie quarterback Joe Flacco from feeling much heat from pass rushers.

The Ravens rumbled for 151 rushing yards against Cleveland in a 28-10 victory and built a 15-minute time of possession advantage in wearing out the Browns. The offense maintained control of the football for more than 13 minutes in the fourth quarter.

"You could see it out there," Gaither said. "After the first few drives, they were on their knees and we just continued to pound on them."

The Ravens have been using unbalanced lines, and also employed cross-blocking schemes. They've sent more than one offensive lineman pulling outside on sweeps. That's an old-school gambit reminiscent of the old Green Bay Packers' outside runs popularized by Vince Lombardi.

"We just put our head down and started chopping wood," Terry said. "I don't think we're there yet, but we're doing okay and so far, so good."

The Ravens have also utilized four-time Pro Bowl tackle Willie Anderson as a substitute, working him in next to Gaither when they use their jumbo backfield with Neal operating as a lead blocker for McClain.

Anderson has also provided considerable leadership and experience to a young line.

"I think my role is coming in and helping these guys out off the bench for now," said Anderson, the former Cincinnati Bengals team captain who signed a three-year, $11 million contract days before the season opener against his old team. "These young guys are coming on strong and I'm just glad to be a part of it."

In the wake of All-Pro offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden's retirement and center Mike Flynn being cut during the offseason, one of the Ravens' biggest question marks heading into the season has emerged as an asset so far.

"For two weeks in, and they'll be the first to tell you this, they've got a lot of things to work on," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "When you study that tape, there are many things that the offensive line can do better. But they've played well to date and I think they've come a long way.

"John Matsko has done a tremendous job with those guys. Jason Brown in the middle has been orchestrating those guys really well, and they have protected Joe. That helps Joe develop or any quarterback play better. They've played well to date, no question about it."

Although the Steelers will be missing starting nose guard Casey Hampton and defensive end Brett Keisel due to injuries, the Ravens' line will still face a stern test Monday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. In a 38-7 Monday night win over Baltimore last year, outside linebacker James Harrison recorded three 1/2 sacks, three forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovery.

"We're playing some decent football, but we have to keep our pedal to the floor," Yanda said. "This is going to be our first road test, and it's going to be very loud.

"You get a true test in the regular season. The preseason doesn't always give you a real accurate picture of what a team is going to be like."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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