When Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta was asked at his postseason news conference about ways to fix the Ravens passing game, his immediate answer had nothing to do with Lamar Jackson’s accuracy, or the lack of a true No. 1 receiver, or the schemes of offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
“One of the things we have to do,” DeCosta said, “is get better up front with pass protection.”
Indeed, for all the other issues facing a passing attack that ranked last in the league — and Jackson’s accuracy and the impact of receivers are valid concerns — DeCosta knows it all starts up front. When the GM speaks like that, it’s clear that the offensive line, specifically the interior line, stands near the top of any list of needs this offseason.
When pass protection breaks down, it is irrelevant how precise Jackson’s throws are or whether the Ravens have a true No. 1 receiver, because Jackson won’t have time for any of that to matter. That was the case in the postseason, as Jackson was frequently under the gun against the Tennessee Titans and especially against the Buffalo Bills, whose pass rush overmatched a Ravens offensive line that had been patched together in various permutations throughout the second half of the season.
Because of injuries (Ronnie Stanley, Tyre Phillips) or ineffectiveness (Matt Skura), the Ravens used five starting offensive-line combinations during the final 10 games. They started three different centers and three different right tackles. Only left guard Bradley Bozeman started all 16 games at the same position.
For much of that stretch, offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris got the most out of this group, with Patrick Mekari replacing Skura at center and Ben Powers, who had hardly played in his first 1.5 NFL seasons, taking over as the starter at right guard.
The group particularly excelled in run blocking but struggled at times to protect the passer, and the line was overmatched in the 17-3 playoff loss to the Bills. Two of the game’s pivotal plays hinged on problematic offensive line play.
First, Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes blew past Phillips, then the right tackle, to pressure Jackson into an incompletion near the goal line when Jackson had Marquise Brown running free. On the next play, Jackson threw an interception that was returned 101 yards for a touchdown. Then at the end of the third quarter, an errant snap from Mekari left Jackson scrambling back toward his end zone, and after he retrieved the ball and hurriedly threw an incompletion, his helmet slammed into the turf as he was tackled. Jackson left the game with a concussion, effectively ending the Ravens’ season.
As the Ravens look toward the 2021 season and beyond, more changes along the line are likely. On a positive note, head coach John Harbaugh said he expects the All-Pro Stanley to be ready for the season. Stanley suffered a season-ending ankle injury on Nov. 1 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, just two days after signing a five-year, $98.75 million contract extension.
Stanley’s return to left tackle would allow Brown to move back to the right side, giving the Ravens two proven bookends to anchor the line
Who will play between them is one of the team’s major offseason questions.
Skura is a pending free agent and is unlikely to be re-signed after losing his starting job. Mekari has played three positions along the line, so his versatility adds value, but his snapping woes at Buffalo proved to be a huge problem.
“We certainly have to do a better job of getting the ball back to the quarterback,” DeCosta said.
Bozeman had a strong year as the left guard, and the Ravens might prefer to keep him there, where has established himself alongside Stanley. But he played center at Alabama and has always been viewed as a potential replacement there. Trystan Colon-Castillo, who signed as a highly regarded undrafted rookie, ended up starting two games for the Ravens and figures to be in the mix at center as well.
Phillips showed enough promise that he was the team’s Week 1 right guard as a rookie, faced with the unenviable job of succeeding eight-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda. Phillips missed three games with an injury, and played mainly right tackle when he returned, but the Ravens still project him as a guard.
To be sure, there are a lot of moving parts, but the Ravens know that finding a group that can play together, create a pocket and protect Jackson is imperative.
“A lot of young players are emerging talents,” DeCosta said. “We’ll also have a chance, I think, with the draft and free agency to augment those positions as well.”
Green Bay’s Corey Linsley, named an All-Pro this season, tops the list of pending free-agent centers. Although DeCosta said the Ravens’ cap situation isn’t as grave as feared coming off the pandemic-altered year — though no one yet knows precisely what the cap will be — the organization does not have a habit of making free-agency splashes. They are more likely to look for value in lesser free agents or build up the line through the draft.
The Ravens have six draft picks after being rewarded an additional third-round compensatory pick when assistant head coach David Culley was hired away to be the Houston Texans head coach. DeCosta has said he’d like to acquire more picks, something the Ravens have often done with trades during the draft.
“We’ll find the best five guys and the best backups behind them,” DeCosta added, “and we’ll start up in September.”
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