Bradley Bozeman crouched down, gripped the ball with his right hand, and zipped a snap back to Lamar Jackson standing 5 yards behind him. That sight, at the second day of the Ravens’ Organized Team Activity workout in May, was one of the most tangible signs of a transformed Ravens offensive line that has been a focal point of the offseason.
A couple of other signs were equally hard to miss: newly signed tackle Alejandro Villanueva, towering over most everyone else on the Owings Mills, Md., practice fields at 6-foot-9, and rookie guard Ben Cleveland — all 6-feet-6 and 357 pounds of him.
It’s too early to know exactly what the offensive line will look like when the Ravens open the season at Las Vegas Sept. 13, but Bozeman working as the No. 1 center — after starting at left guard the previous two years — and the additions of Villanueva, Cleveland and veteran guard Kevin Zeitler, along with the subtraction of Orlando Brown Jr., illustrate how different the offensive line will look this year.
In fact, if Bozeman stays at center, the Ravens likely will have different starters at four of five offensive line positions compared to Week 1 in 2020.
The only holdover would be All-Pro tackle Ronnie Stanley, but his availability for the beginning of the season is still unclear as he rehabs from offseason surgery on the ankle injury that ended his 2020 campaign after six games.
In short, there are a lot of moving parts.
“You don’t know when it’s going to start to click,” said national NFL analyst Brian Baldinger, a former offensive lineman himself, noting that Stanley’s status adds to the uncertainty. But he described both Zeitler and Cleveland as “a perfect fit” for this offense.
Head coach John 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.”
To their credit, the Ravens have won plenty of games in this league, going 30-7 in the regular season with Jackson as the starting quarterback the past three seasons, all of which included postseason berths.
Led by the singularly-talented Jackson, the Ravens have become the most potent rushing attack in the league. Two years ago, the Ravens set the single-season NFL rushing record with 3,296 yards, and they led the league again this past year with 3,071 — the third-highest total ever.
Jackson, J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards all rushed for more than 700 yards last year — the second year in a row that a Ravens trio has done that, and just the third time that has happened in NFL history.
“They keep you guessing,” Baldinger said. “There’s a lot of misdirection, there’s a lot of disguise. You really don’t know who has the ball. I mean, it’s three-card Monte back there some days.”
You don’t accomplish that without solid offensive line play.
Yet for all that success, here’s a fact the Ravens can’t run from: They have suffered three straight early postseason exits in which they were decisively beaten up front.
And while the Ravens have been running wild, their passing offense ranked dead last this past year at 171.2 yards a game. Harbaugh downplayed that, noting that the Ravens throw less often than any other team in the league.
Asked after the season about how the Ravens could improve the passing offense, general manager Eric DeCosta didn’t begin by addressing the scheme, or Jackson’s accuracy or the skill set of the receivers.
“One of the things we have to do,” DeCosta declared, “is get better up front with pass protection.”
A disastrous sequence in the divisional-round loss to the Buffalo Bills illustrated the issue.
With the Ravens trailing 10-3 in the third quarter, the Ravens faced second-and-goal at the Bills’ 9-yard line. 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 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 tried to squeeze a pass to Mark Andrews in a tight window, but Taron Johnson picked it off and raced 101 yards the other way for a touchdown.
DeCosta’s comment seemed to be a clarion call that the Ravens would make the offensive line a top offseason priority, a plan accelerated by Orlando Brown Jr. asking to be traded so he could play left tackle. Brown, a Pro Bowl pick each of the past two years, was ultimately sent to the Kansas City Chiefs in a deal that netted the Ravens two additional draft picks, including a first-rounder.
Once free agency began, DeCosta quickly signed Zeitler, a nine-year veteran who figures to start at right guard.
“If you’re Kevin Zeitler, it’s a dream job” coming to Baltimore, Baldinger said. “You get to run-block and really play to your strengths. … I thought the move for Zeitler was awesome.”
And with Brown shipped to Kansas City, DeCosta signed Villanueva, the former Pittsburgh Steeler and presumptive starting right tackle.
Center Of Attention
Everything, though, begins in the middle, and the Ravens struggled to find consistent play at center last year. Snapping woes cost Matt Skura the starting job, and neither Patrick Mekari nor undrafted rookie Trystan Colon decisively won the job after that.
In the playoff loss to the Bills, an errant snap from Mekari sailed past Jackson, who hurriedly recovered the fumble, unloaded a pass, and then got hammered, sustaining a concussion that essentially ended the Ravens’ season.
After opting not to select a plug-and-play center in the draft, the Ravens have handed the ball to Bozeman, a two-year starting center at Alabama.
“He looks good,” Harbaugh said after an OTA workout in May. “He’s very comfortable in there. He’s making the calls. He’s moving very naturally as a center. He’s snapping the ball very well. … Moving forward, he’ll be the center and then we’ll let guys compete from there.”
Bozeman shifting to center, though, leaves an opening at left guard, and that’s where Cleveland, an All-SEC guard at Georgia, comes in.
“That’s a big, strong powerful guy that likes to rough people up,” Harbaugh said, “and that’s how we want to play.”
Baldinger concurred, saying Georgia’s run offense was “probably as close to what the Ravens do in college football as there is. … I think he’s a really good fit. Cleveland is just a massive, massive guard and he’s perfect for this offense.”
Harbaugh is reluctant to hand starting jobs to rookies, so Cleveland will have to earn any time he gets. The Ravens will take a long look at Ben Powers, who started seven games at right guard last year, while Mekari and Ben Bredeson, a four-year starting left guard at Michigan, could be in the mix as well.
Regardless of how this group falls into place, Baldinger stressed that offensive linemen love to play in this offense.
“It’s run first,” he said. “You never have to go, ‘Let’s get the running game going today, guys.’ … A lot of teams cross their fingers and try to find a four-leaf clover and go, ‘I hope we do this today.’ … You never have to worry about that with [offensive coordinator Greg Roman] and this offense. They’re going to run it. And they’re going to run it in a variety of ways.
“You get a lot of double-teams, you get a lot of smash-mouth football,” Baldinger continued. “It’s a fun offense to play in if you’re an offensive lineman.”
Photo Credits: Kenya Allen/PressBox, Karl Roser/Pittsburgh Steelers
Originally published June 16, 2021