If the Ravens' new-look O-Line can't get a big push against the Brocos' front 7, especially in the running game, it could be a long cold day in Denver for Baltimore fans. It is that critical a factor for the Ravens. But the revamped O-Line played very well against Indy last week. Something clicked.
With Jah Reid out due to turf toe, the Ravens moved Osemele over to LG and installed veteran Bryant McKinnie at left tackle. "Moby Grape" as I call him has been on the sidelines for most of the previous season---I'm still not sure why except for rumors of back problems lingering from the preseason. McKinnie did a fine job of pass protection against the Colts. He may not be very good in the downfield run blocking game, but he can still pass-protect.
That means Michael Oher moved over to right tackle--which some consider his natural position. Marshal Yanda remained at RG. Matt Birk stayed at center.
This is the Crunch Crew lineup that has evolved on the Ravens O-Line, and this unit must come up big on Saturday for any realistic chance of upsetting the Broncos.
The Broncos finished the regular season tied with St. Louis for the NFL lead in team sacks (52). Baltimore’s ability to do a better job of slowing them down in the rematch will be pivotal in Saturday’s game.
"I just want to beat them up,” McKinnie said. “Slow down that speed rush. That’s what I would like to do.” By “beating up” the Broncos, McKinnie means running the ball a lot so that he can be the aggressor in blocking rather than backpedaling. “It helps out a lot because it gives them less opportunity to rush,” McKinnie said. “Then if you’re able to keep colliding with them it slows them down as the game goes on.”
The Broncos’ two sack artists are second-year first-round pick Von Miller (18.5 sacks) and veteran Elvis Dumervil (11 sacks). Dumervil notched one sack against the Ravens in the regular-season meeting and each had two quarterback hits. They’re different types of rushers, McKinnie said.
“Dumervil is a little older, so he wants to collide,” he said. “He’s going to give you a collision first and then make a move off that. Von is going to dip under your arms, make you miss and stuff like that.”
Miller is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and more of a playmaker than Dumervil. He exploded onto the scene last year as a rookie and added to his game this season.
“Speed, power, quickness, finesse – he’s got it all,” Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell said. “He can run past you up the field. He’s got enough power to lean and bore and drive the protector back into the quarterback. He can make you miss inside and out. … He’s tremendous.”
One way to neutralize Miller and Dumervil is to run at them. Head coach John Harbaugh said the Ravens tried to do that in their last meeting, but on 17 rushes between Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, the Ravens averaged just 3.4 yards per carry. Rice had just 38 yards on 12 carries. That was behind the previous edition of the Ravens O-Line, however, which did not have McKinnie, had Michael Oher at left tackle instead of RT, had a banged-up Yanda and Bobbie WIlliams on the right side, and had Jah Reid struggling with his toe issues at LG.
“We really wanted to run the ball on Denver, and they just did a great job – give them credit – they did a good job against us up front and we couldn’t run the ball,” Harbaugh said. “So, you want to be able to run the ball. They would say that, most every team in the league would say that, and for us that’s going to be a big part of our formula.”
Peyton Manning and the Broncos have had two weeks to prepare for Baltimore (11-6)--- and their pass rush and run defense should be fresh, putting further pressure on the Ravens' O-Line.
Joe Flacco was 20 of 40 for 254 yards with two TDs and one INT versus Denver last month. He was also under pressure a lot, getting knocked down three times and sacked once, and hurried on a whole bunch of other passing downs. Baltimore tight end Dennis Pitta caught both touchdowns and had a career-high 125 yards in that contest.
Flacco went 2-of-6 when the Broncos sent five or more pass rushers in Week 15, including the game-changing pick-6 by Chris Harris at the end of the first half. The Broncos posted the best Total QBR when using five or more rushers this season (16.1), but were even better in the fourth quarter.
No quarterback had a higher dropback rate using play action than Joe Flacco from 2008 to 2010 (31 percent), but over the past two seasons Flacco has the 25th-highest rate (20 percent). During that time, a common theme in Ravens' losses has been an inability to get the play action game going. In Week 15 against the Broncos this season, Flacco was 3-of-5 for 1 yard on such plays.
All of which goes back to the O-Line. It's got to come through against a very good Broncos front 7 to allow Flacco to stay close to his offensive potential. If the O-Line enables the chance for the Ravens to at least stay close to the Broncos' offensive point production (and keep Manning off the field), this game will be within reach for the Ravens. Realistically, you just hope to keep the game close near the end, and get a shot to steal a win. So I'll be watching the Ravens guards and tackles very closely on Saturday. How much success they have in their matchups may very well determine the ultimate outcome in Denver, all other factors being theoretically equal.