The 2020 season had barely ended with a divisional-round loss to the Buffalo Bills when general manager Eric DeCosta was asked about how the Ravens could jump-start their 32nd-ranked passing game. And he began his answer not talking about scheme, or Lamar Jackson’s accuracy, or the skill sets of the receivers.
“One of the things we have to do,” DeCosta declared, “is get better up front with pass protection.”
From that moment on, it became clear that revamping the offensive line would be a major offseason priority, a process further dictated by tackle Orlando Brown Jr. proclaiming he wanted to be traded so he could play left tackle.
With a flurry of moves in the past two weeks, the revamped line has come into sharper focus, and it’s a physically imposing group that likely will feature three new starters and only left tackle Ronnie Stanley returning at the same position he played last year.
The latest move occurred May 4, when the Ravens officially signed former Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva, and he is expected to take over for the disgruntled Brown, traded to the Kansas City Chiefs shortly before the draft.
That signing came a few days after the Ravens drafted massive Ben Cleveland from Georgia, who is a frontrunner to start at left guard. And it came after DeCosta made another offensive guard, Kevin Zeitler, the team’s first free-agent acquisition this year.
Head coach John Harbaugh always says that training camp competition will sort everything out and that the best five linemen will play, but as of now, when the Ravens take the field for their season opener — the opponent will be revealed when the NFL announces the full schedule May 12 — this is a likely starting line:
LT: Ronnie Stanley (6-foot-6, 315 pounds)
LG: Ben Cleveland (6-6, 357)
C: Bradley Bozeman (6-5, 325)
RG: Kevin Zeitler (6-4, 315)
RT: Alejandro Villanueva (6-9, 320)
Villanueva played left tackle in his seven seasons with the Steelers, but he doesn’t anticipate any struggle switching over to the right side with the Ravens. Then again, Villanueva went to West Point, became a U.S. Army Ranger captain and served combat tours in Afghanistan, earning the Bronze Star for rescuing wounded soldiers. Struggle is a matter of perspective.
“I think the transition is going to be more into the playbook of the Ravens than it is going to be from left tackle to right tackle,” Villanueva said at his introductory news conference May 5, “because so many plays are different. … It doesn’t matter if you put your right or left hand down, you’re probably going to be far enough off the ball [and] get good angles.”
Villanueva also gives the Ravens a veteran insurance policy at left tackle in case Stanley has any setback in the rehabilitation from his ankle injury.
Harbaugh isn’t about to hand a job to the rookie Cleveland, who will have to compete with Ben Powers, Ben Bredeson and others in training camp, but the selection of Cleveland likely slides Bozeman to center, a move that has been hinted at for months. Bozeman, the starting left guard the past two years, played center at Alabama, and none of the three players who started at center last year made a compelling case to be an incumbent starter.
It’s probably too simplistic to say one loss drove the Ravens’ offseason roster-building process, but it’s not hard to see that a couple of breakdowns along the offensive line proved to be costly in the playoff loss to Buffalo.
With the Ravens trailing 10-3 in the third quarter, the Ravens faced second-and-goal at the Bills 9-yard line. Lamar Jackson rolled to his right, and Marquise Brown worked open streaking across the field. But Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes blew past tackle Tyre Phillips and running back J.K. Dobbins, who whiffed on a chip-block attempt.
That forced Jackson to rush the throw, which fell short of Brown and incomplete. On the next play, Jackson’s pass intended for Mark Andrews was picked off and returned 101 yards for a touchdown by Taron Johnson for a 17-3 Bills lead.
If that wasn’t the dagger, it came moments later when center Patrick Mekari’s snap sailed past Jackson, who hurriedly recovered the fumble, unloaded a pass, and then got hammered, sustaining a game-ending concussion.
It was another ignominious finish for an offensive line that for the second straight year helped to produce the best running attack in the game, and at 3,071 yards, the third-highest total in NFL history. But for the third straight year, the line was manhandled in a playoff loss. The Bills beat the Ravens with pressure, they won one-on-one battles, and the Ravens hurt themselves with snapping woes.
With a lot of new parts in place, it might take time for this new unit to get used to playing together. But the Ravens like how this line is coming together, and old-school offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris will have fun molding this group.
Harbaugh clearly knows what’s at stake.
“If you don’t have a good offensive line,” he said earlier this offseason, “I don’t think you’re winning any games in this league.”
Photo Credit: Karl Roser/Pittsburgh Steelers