How the Ravens Should Approach the O-Line
Ravens fans see the offensive line as the group that needs the most work this off-season. Consequently, I’ve dedicated a lot of my film study to determining the best approach for the Ravens moving forward. Here are my thoughts on the line from left to right.
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There is little room for debate at this position. Ozzie Newsome and Co. struck a bargain deal with (what I consider to be) their franchise left tackle. Since the retirement of Jonathan Ogden, the Ravens have had inconsistent tackle play on their QB’s blind-side, including names like Andre Gurode, Jared Gaither, Bryant McKinnie, and Michael Oher.
I wrote a lengthy piece about Eugene Monroe’s fit in Baltimore, but briefly, I think Monroe is exactly what the Ravens need. He’s a technician who excels in pass protection even against elite pass rushers. His smaller frame and agile feet fit in well with the new dedication to the zone-blocking scheme under Gary Kubiak. Monroe’s weaknesses (average anchor, minimal power) can be mitigated by the new system’s play-action and boot-action play calls that can provide Monroe more space between himself and Flacco before contact.
Right player. Right team. Right price.
Left guard was a position of weakness down the stretch for the Ravens. 2012 second round draft pick Kelechi Osemele played 443 snaps at left guard before bowing out of the season due to a lingering back injury. 2013 free agent center A.Q. Shipley took the majority of left guard snaps (730) with poor results. Shipley didn’t show great enough versatility to be able to play in the Ravens system last year. To be fair, the Ravens’ shotgun-based attack is hell on an offensive lineman, particularly when the run-game was non-existent (Football Outsiders efficiency metric ranked the Ravens rushing attack as 8th worst since 1950). Even when adjusting for difficulty, I don’t think Shipley has a future on this line.
Projecting Osemele moving into next season is difficult only because of injury concerns. That said, I think that Osemele is a great fit at left guard for the upcoming year. As a natural guard, Osemele pass protects very well in that his bulk and length allow him to engage nose-shades/3-techniques and anchor down to keep them from applying frontal pressure. Osemele smoothly works in concert with neighboring lineman when working against stunts and rarely makes mental mistakes.
Injuries hobbled Osemele in 2013 and as a result, his run-blocking suffered. Osemele has the ability to move laterally and to lock up interior lineman on a zone-blocking path. But toward the end of his season, he clearly had trouble gaining leverage on defenders because of his inability to get low. A healthy Osemele at left guard would be a great fit for the zone-blocking scheme but also a huge boost the the O-Line in general:
I think that Osemele fits as a guard much better than right tackle (discussed below).
The last option at left guard is Jah Reid. Assuming Reid doesn’t face further complications due to his recent arrest, he will be the back-up swing guard. Anyone looking at Reid’s 6’7 340lb frame would assume he is a plodding banger who moves defenders with strength. Oddly that isn’t his game. Reid’s pass blocking technique is poor. He “catches” defenders rather than punching with force and he can be bull-rushed. None of these are good traits for a guard. His redeeming qualities come in the run game. Reid has a surprisingly good feel for how to gain leverage on first level defenders and how to reach the second level. Reid was also very good at pulling across the formation on power runs.
I have yet to figure out why the Ravens decided Shipley was a better guard than Reid during the 2013 struggle.
Ravens fans were optimistic about Gino Gradkowski filling the retired Matt Birk’s role for the 2013 season. But it didn’t take long for them to turn on Gradkowski after several poor performances. Many blamed Gradkowski for the decline in the Ravens rushing attack, using the evidence that Gino was the only new-comer from the Super Bowl offensive line. However, I don’t think Gino was the main reason the rushing attack was sub-par, though he did play a large part.
Gradkowski was overwhelmed in every aspect of the game. This lasted throughout the season and only began to improve toward the end of the year. Gradkowski didn’t work well with neighboring guards in combination blocks, and often times blown assignments forced running-backs to evade tacklers before they reached the line of scrimmage. Gradkowski does not have the size to anchor in pass protection against 3-4 nose tackles or 4-3 nose-shades. Meanwhile, no QB faces frontal pressure very well, and in a system based on deep-passing, an unreliable center can derail pass plays before they begin.
The Ravens will keep Gradkowski on the team, that’s without question. But, should he start next season?
I think Kubiak’s system will help Gradkowski in a number of ways. Increased use of reduced sets and two tight-end formations will increase slide protection usage, allowing Gradkowski to play in spatial proximity to a guard in order to get help. Additionally, dependence on the precision- and timing-based West Coast Offense will keep Gradkowski from having to pass protect for as long. Lastly, play-action and boot-action can boost Gradkowski’s pass protection because a) nose tackles will rarely ever pressure a rolling QB and b) play-action pass protection is essentially run-blocking where Gradkowski can fire out and play low to the ground.
As a Gradkowski supporter, I still can’t condone him being the de facto starter for 2014. There are a number of free agent centers whose market has presumably gone down after not being signed early in the process. One of these centers is former Saint Brian de la Puente.
The 28-year-old free agent has been a part of the Saints organization since 2010. At 6’2, 308lbs he shares the same dimensions as Gradkowski. However, de le Puente carries his weight a bit higher in his upper-body which affords him additional power to take on nose tackles in protection.
In the run game, de la Puente’s biggest assets are hand placement and leverage understanding. de la Puente isn’t an elite lateral mover, but he has experience in the zone-blocking scheme. This shows in his post-snap communication with nearby linemen, a portion of the game I think Gradkowski struggled with:
de la Puente is not without flaws. He doesn’t move particularly fast and I wouldn’t feel comfortable consistently asking him to “reach” a 2i or nose-shade. Fortunately, he won’t be moved backwards in the run game either, which thwarted the 2013 Ravens (and Texans) zone-running game at times.
Marshal Yanda didn’t have a Pro Bowl-type season last year, but I think much of that can be attributed to his surrounding help. Yanda was very solid in pass protection but he didn’t run block at an elite level due to miscommunication both pre- and post-snap with C Gradkowski and RT Oher. Zone blocking involves a series of combination blocks to effectively create creases. Without sufficient communication and leverage, the zone-blocking scheme can’t work.
I have faith in Yanda moving forward. This position is not in question.
With Michael Oher finding a new home in Tennessee, the right tackle depth chart is thin. Given the current roster, the best options are as follows: 1) Ricky Wagner, 2) Kelechi Osemele (move Reid/Wagner to LG), and 3) David Mims.
I recently took a close look at Ricky Wagner and I think he could be an average right tackle in this league and a very good 6th offensive lineman in heavy personnel. His strength lies in drive-blocking in the run game. Wagner has minimal experience in zone-blocking in the NFL, and I think he may struggle to efficiently reach 4-3 DEs and 3-4 OLBs on a consistent basis. Ultimately, I think Wagner is best suited as a guard based on his power and his inconsistent “set” and “punch” when pass-setting on the edge.
I think Osemele could be a decent right tackle but I worry that his play would drop off substantially. Osemele works best on the inside because he can over-power bigger defensive tackles with technique and hip-movement. When Osemele faced smaller OLBs, they were often too agile for Osemele to keep up. This showed in his run-blocking and when attempting to pass block:
Yes, Osemele is attempting to block Von Miller, but Osemele does not work on an island very well in general. Osemele’s kick-slide is a bit too slow to mirror the angles of incoming pass rushers and therefore, these defenders can set him up with counter-moves (i.e. spin, rip, arm-over). Osemele is a very good guard who has shown signs of improvement over his short career. My hope is that the Ravens feel the same way.
Without access to pre-season tape at this time of year (…not sure why), I don’t have any personal thoughts on David Mims.
Fans have been clamoring to add Eric Winston, a previous right tackle in Kubiak’s system during this tenure in Houston. For the right price, Winston is a good option. That said, I think the Ravens should use a high pick on a natural tackle. It would suit my interests if the Ravens used a first round pick on a tackle and a second round pick on a wide receiver.
Note: My next venture is to find the suitable tackle in the draft. Analysis of these possibilities upcoming.