Ravens' blockers getting in line

John Madden once said that his ideal offensive line would resemble a cohesive basketball team. Preferably, one adept at team-oriented tasks like communicating and watching out for teammates. Definitely, one that gives the quarterback enough room to breathe.

In the case of the Baltimore Ravens' offensive line, resiliency and footwork led to a rare sack-free game during Sunday's 23-19 victory over the Houston Texans. It's unlikely that it's a coincidence that quarterback Jeff Blake had his best overall game as a Raven.

Blake benefited heavily from the extra time to locate his receivers downfield, leaving the protective confines of the pocket to rush for a first down, too. He completed 18 of 30 passes for 228 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

"We did real well pass protection wise, but we didn't block as well in the running game," said Ravens offensive line coach Jim Colletto, whose unit has surrendered 36 sacks. "That was a good defense with two of the better defensive linemen in Gary Walker and Seth Payne, but we made some mistakes inside."

Running back Jamal Lewis was held to 49 yards on 20 carries as the Texans squeezed the line of scrimmage with their active linebackers. Overall, though, the Ravens' blockers have improved of late.

Especially, since a dreadful showing in a loss to the Miami Dolphins on Nov. 17, when the line was besieged for seven sacks. Prompted by the coaching staff's past criticism, Blake has been more cognizant of pressure and is more prone to stepping forward in the pocket to avoid pass rushers.

The Ravens' only other game when they haven't allowed a sack came in a road win against their next opponent, the Cleveland Browns. Against the Texans' complicated 3-4 alignment designed by coach Dom Capers to cause confusion, the Ravens were forced to substitute. When right offensive guard Bennie Anderson departed the game with an injury, reserve Casey Rabach played about 35 to 40 snaps.

"That is a very complex package, a lot to see and a lot to communicate," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "That is where some of my satisfaction comes from. You had to see it the same way because the backs couldn't hear."

Last year, the Ravens experienced numerous injuries, causing a familiar scenario: the line shuffle. Once prize free agent Leon Searcy injured his triceps tendon in training camp and was ruled out for the entire season, the Ravens experimented with Sammy Williams and Erik Williams before settling on converted guard Kipp Vickers for the remainder of the season.

The Ravens gave up 45 sacks last year, their most since 1999, when they gave up a franchise-high 49. Not surprisingly, their best effort came during the Super Bowl campaign of 2000 with 35 sacks along with an average of 4.3 yards per rush.

This season, Baltimore tried bulky left guard Edwin Mulitalo at right tackle for the first couple of games before, much to Mulitalo's relief, moving him back next to All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden. Ethan Brooks has started 10 of the last 11 games at right tackle, a dicey spot that has had been inhabited by many players during the Ravens' history. Past starters include Harry Swayne and Orlando "Zeus" Brown.

 "In some games, Ethan Brooks has been very good," Colletto said. "In others, he has struggled. He missed most of our camps, so, overall, I've been pleased with him."

In terms of the rushing attack, another primary way to measure a line's effectiveness, Lewis ranks seventh in the AFC with 1,141 rushing yards. As a team, the Ravens are averaging 4.1 yards per rush, up from last year's 3.7 mark when Lewis missed the entire season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The majority of those yards seem to come behind the blocks of Ogden and Mulitalo.

"I couldn't be more pleased with Mike Flynn, Edwin Mulitalo and Jonathan Ogden," Colletto said. "They've done everything we could have asked for. Bennie has to get his weight down a little bit and improve his quickness in the off-season, but he's been very dependable and hard-working. Both he and Ethan will get better."

Although Colletto speaks highly of this current group, including inexperienced reserves Damion Cook, Michael Collins and Lawrence Smith, he wouldn't mind an influx of talent.

 Last season, Colletto scouted several collegiate offensive linemen and was particularly complimentary of Arizona State offensive tackle Levi Jones, the eventual first-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals. Some of the top offensive linemen likely to be available for this year's NFL Draft include: Stanford's Kwame Harris, Utah's Jordan Gross, Florida's Max Starks and Florida State's Brett Williams.

Because the Ravens have more financial freedom than ever before, reportedly $17 million under next year's projected salary cap limit of $73.9 million, they could also entertain the possibility of adding anticipated free agents like mammoth Dallas tackle Flozell "The Hotel" Adams, the Carolina Panthers' Todd Steussie and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Wayne Gandy. Brooks and Mulitalo are unrestricted free agents, but Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has already indicated he wants to re-sign Mulitalo.

"You would always like to have a little competition," Colletto said. "Hopefully, we'll look for an offensive lineman in the draft. I would prefer a guard, but we will get the best guy we can get."

Ravens Insider Top Stories