OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — The Baltimore Ravens can only hope the performance they received from their offensive line last weekend is an indication of what lies ahead for a unit that relies on an unexpected mixture of experience and youth.
Baltimore amassed a season-high 533 yards Sunday in a 33-14 rout of the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Joe Flacco had enough time in the pocket to throw for 309 yards and two touchdowns, the Ravens converted 11 of 18 third downs and Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce each topped 100 yards rushing.
Flacco, Rice and wide receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin are the big names on Baltimore’s offense, but success in the playoffs could depend on what happens up front.
“The offensive line continues to improve,” coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s a young group, so that’s something that we really expect to have happen.”
Rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele and second-year left guard Jah Reid have played well enough to force longtime NFL veterans Bryant McKinnie and Bobbie Williams to the sideline. Coming into the season, McKinnie and Williams had a combined 277 starts and compared to zero for Osemele and Reid.
So perhaps the line could be forgiven for its inconsistent performance in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s masterpiece — a dominating performance that provided the Ravens with their second straight AFC North title.
“It’s just a matter of having confidence in our guys,” guard Marshal Yanda said. “There’s no magical formula. We didn’t reinvent the wheel. It’s just football.”
The offensive line yielded 34 sacks in the first 14 games before holding New York without one Sunday. Flacco, who had six turnovers in the previous three games, was flawless against the Giants.
“Anytime you pass protect the way that we did against a team that can rush the passer like the New York Giants, that’s a big plus,” Harbaugh said. “The run blocking was good. We rushed for a lot of yards, and it’s because those guys were very physical up front.”
Baltimore (10-5) hopes to ride the momentum into Sunday’s regular-season finale against Cincinnati (9-6) before heading into the playoffs.
Yanda, Reid, Osemele, 36-year-old center Matt Birk and fourth-year left tackle Michael Oher make up an offensive front that has endured a bit of shuffling since September.
Ramon Harewood began the season at left guard after spending his first two NFL seasons in injured reserve. Harewood took a seat on the bench after five weeks and was replaced by Williams, who stayed there until Reid made his first NFL start on Nov. 18 in Pittsburgh.
When Yanda missed the Dec. 16 game against Denver, Williams took his place.
Now, finally, the unit appears set. Plus, Harbaugh has the luxury of summoning rookie center Gino Gradkowski or two solid veterans in case of emergency.
“We probably have more depth in the offensive line than we have had in quite a while,” the coach said. “We have some veterans that can step in and play. Bobbie has done a real nice job when he’s been in there. And of course, Bryant McKinnie hasn’t had a chance, because the tackles have been so healthy, but Bryant’s a guy that is going to be very valuable for us here down the stretch if something happens. That’s definitely a blessing for us.”
Rice is exceptional once he gets past the line of scrimmage, and while fullback Vonta Leach has proven to be an exceptional escort through the hole, nothing happens if the line can’t create a void in the defense.
“Those guys, they work very hard. They are the hardest working group in the building,” Rice said. “They meet, they work, they just work and work. One thing I like about our line is that we’re athletic, and we’ve got guys that can do multiple things. You don’t see tackles moving as fast as our tackles. Then we’ve got our inside guys who are big and physical guys, along with the leadership of Matt Birk. Those guys really got the job done.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)