Ravens' line faces major test

OWINGS MILLS -- A series of cringe-inducing helmet shots to rookie quarterback Joe Flacco's back. A pocket trampled by massive Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. A line of scrimmage constantly redrawn by the speed and moves of defensive ends Kyle Vanden Bosch and Jevon Kearse.

Those are a few of the worst-case scenarios the Baltimore Ravens' offensive line is tasked with preventing Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium against the undefeated Titans and their intimidating front four.

A blue-chip defensive line has produced all but one of the Titans' 15 sacks, tying them for second in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"They are one of the best defenses in the league, period, and they definitely have one of the best defensive lines," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "They've got four really good players up front and it's going to be a challenge for our offensive line."

Compounding the problem of grappling with two Pro Bowl defensive linemen in Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch is the fact that the Ravens allowed a season-high five sacks in a 23-20 overtime loss to the Steelers on Monday night.

Although the Ravens eventually settled down and tied the game as they bought Flacco time late in the fourth quarter, it was easily their worst game of the season. The Ravens had given up just one sack combined in wins over the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns.

"I was proud of our performance," offensive tackle Adam Terry said. "Yes, we didn't win and we had some mental errors, but overall we buckled down in the end and put together that drive. A lot of the other stuff we can correct, but you can't correct heart. That's something you're born with.

"It's like anyone else. A bad day at work, the photocopier doesn't work, so you kick the photocopier and keep working. We can't be satisfied with our performance."

Now, the youngest offensive line in the NFL faces an even greater test.

In particular, Haynesworth is capable of creating problems. The 6-foot-6, 320-pounder combines size, speed and strength and is versatile enough to play defensive end.

A returning All-Pro selection, the occasionally temperamental lineman ranks second in the NFL with five sacks to go with 21 tackles and three tackle for losses. Against the Minnesota Vikings, he had two sacks and seven tackles.

"It's a combination of things you have to deal with," Yanda said. "He's tall. He's an athlete. He moves around really well for how big he is and he gets a lot of push. He's a guy we'll have to really play well against."

Vanden Bosch plays with a nonstop motor, relentlessly chasing the football. Last season, he posted 115 tackles and a dozen sacks. He has three sacks this year along with 24 tackles, three forced fumbles and 12 quarterback pressures. He'll be left tackle Jared Gaither's primary assignment.

Plus, the Titans have Jevon "The Freak" Kearse, a three-time Pro Bowl end trying to revive a fading career after rejoining his old team after a disappointing stint with the Philadelphia Eagles. The former NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year has 71 career sacks with 1 1/2 this year.

Because of Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch's presence, people tend to forget about emerging defensive tackle Tony Brown, who has three sacks.

"Everybody knows Haynesworth's strengths, they're obvious," center Jason Brown said. "They're good all across their front. It's not all about Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch.

"They're very talented up front and they've got that big man in the middle. Of course, I can't tell you how we are going to neutralize him."

Against the Steelers, the Ravens struggled to protect Flacco adequately.

Outside linebacker James Harrison thrived as he registered 2 1/2 sacks, 10 tackles and forced a pivotal fumble when he struck Flacco from behind and it was returned for a touchdown in the third quarter.

"We didn't play collectively as well as we can play," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "When we broke it down, it was just one-on-one matchups, blocking. The good news is we're getting a lot of separation up the field, so when the ball is coming out we didn't have any protection problems.

"We're not a one-back team where really the five guys in the offensive line do all the protecting. We protect with everybody, and it's our protection that has got to continue to get better. That team can create edge pressure just like this team can, and we've got to work this week to get this corrected."

Flacco's pocket awareness is improving, but he's entering just his fourth NFL start.

He's gradually learning that sometimes he'll need to take a sack instead of holding the ball in hope of making a play downfield.

"I wouldn't say that he doesn't understand that," Cameron said. "Unfortunately, that's one of those that you learn from. Every play has a starting point and an ending point. Sometimes, the ending point is to take a sack and punt.

"Sometimes, the ending point is throw the ball away. For the most part, I think he understands that. The other night, they made a heck of a play and I think he learned a valuable lesson."

Using an internal clock to realize when they have to get rid of the ball is a critical component in a young quarterback's development.

For Flacco, it's about adjusting to the speed of the game and the personnel around him.

"We have a good offensive line, they've been doing a great job all year," Flacco said. "So, we're going to expect those guys to be working hard this game and giving us time to throw.

"Obviously, we want to limit our sacks. We don't want to lose yardage and we don't want to turn the ball over."

The Titans rank fifth in total defense, and are first in takeaways with eight interceptions and four fumble recoveries.

Tennessee uses a 4-3 base defense, a contrast to the Browns and Bengals' 3-4 schemes.

"They're a really good front, probably the best front we've faced all year," Yanda said. "They get a heck of a push up the middle, so we're going to definitely have to be on our A game.

"The more we play together, the better we're going to be. We're a young line and we're still learning every snap." Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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