The Baltimore Ravens offensive line has been a hot topic during the offseason. Fans have been worried about how the team would patch up the line since the end of last season, and there’s no mystery there. The Ravens' inability to protect Joe Flacco was frustrating for fans and a big reason why they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs.
Every Ravens fan wants to know how the Ravens are going to beat Pittsburgh. It’s a question they’ve been asking all offseason. Some people say that they need to pressure Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and that’s absolutely true.
However, Roethlisberger did not beat the Ravens single-handedly in 2010. In fact, the Ravens were able to pressure and sack him in every game last season. The point is that the Ravens are already getting enough pressure on Roethlisberger to beat the Steelers. That is, Baltimore's defense is already doing enough and is good enough to beat them.
Pittsburgh's defense is another story altogether. People tend to focus on the quarterbacks, but it’s the Steelers' defense that turned the tide in the playoff game last season and it was Troy Polamalu who forced the turnover in the second regular season game, which ultimately won the division for Pittsburgh.
Therefore, the Ravens really need to find a way to beat the Steelers' defense if they’re going to beat the Steelers. That’s an imposing task on the surface. The Steelers have two former defensive players of the year on their defense in Polamalu, who won last year, and James Harrison, who won the award in 2008.
That being said, the Steelers are not strong everywhere on defense. Their secondary is a liability, but they use a ferocious pass rush and a complex zone coverage scheme to cover up their weaknesses.
It really is an ingenious system but is completely dependent on the pass-rush getting to the quarterback. It rarely happens, but if an offense can negate their pass-rush, the Steelers defense cracks. The New England Patriots have had consistent success versus the Steelers in recent history, and their recipe for success in every game starts with stopping the pass-rush.
Stopping the Steelers pass rush is easier said than done. Many offenses are incapable of stopping it completely. In order to slow down the Steelers All-Pro outside linebackers Lamarr Woodley and Harrison, an offense needs to have talented offensive tackles that can protect against the edge rush.
Ravens fans know what it’s like playing the Steelers with poor offensive tackles. In game versus the Steelers in 2009, the Ravens tried to start Oniel Cousins, a tackle the Ravens recently cut, at right tackle. Woodley wound up beating Cousins badly and sacked Flacco on consecutive plays in a key drive. The Ravens ultimately lost the game by a field goal.
Furthermore, it was Michael Oher’s poor play at left tackle that played a big role in the several key Ravens losses last season. Oher was in the bottom eleven in pass-blocking efficiency for tackles according to Pro Football Focus, and it was his missed block that allowed Polamalu to sack Flacco and force the fumble in the final regular season game versus the Steelers.
As we already stated, that game—and that play specifically—turned out to be the deciding factor that allowed Pittsburgh to win the division, so we could say that last season’s losses to the Steelers literally boiled down to poor tackle play.
That’s the reason why fans are so interested in the offensive line and why the Ravens have been so active trying to improve it. They traded up in the draft to pick Jah Reid, a big right tackle prospect, but their biggest moves were made during training camp.
It was no secret that the Ravens were thin on the offensive line. They lacked depth and talent and were having serious pass-protection issues in preseason games and camp. This caused fans to panic and ultimately led to the team signing Mark LeVoir, a versatile journeyman tackle who was recently released by New England; and most recently Bryant McKinnie, a Pro Bowl tackle who was recently released by Minnesota for salary and weight concerns.
As the season progresses, McKinnie could prove to be the most important signing the Ravens have made this offseason. Unlike Oher who was in the bottom eleven in pass-blocking efficiency, McKinnie was in the top ten in pass-blocking efficiency for tackles last season according to Pro Football Focus, so he could provide the edge the Ravens need to not only beat the Steelers but also keep Flacco upright so that he can take the next step in his progression.
At 6’8” and 370 pounds, McKinnie adds another big body to the offensive line and should also help the running game, but the biggest effect may be that he allows Oher to move back to right tackle, a position that he dominated as a rookie. With McKinnie on the left side of the line and Oher on the right, the Ravens offensive should be able to get the running game going and most importantly, protect Flacco on passing plays.
McKinnie doesn’t need to be a Pro Bowler for the Ravens, but if he plays like the top-ten pass protector he was in Minnesota last season, the Ravens will have a huge advantage versus the Steelers this season.