A Closer Look At the Baltimore Ravens vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers - Part 2

My second look into the Baltimore Ravens focuses on their offensive line. Now granted, I haven't even watched many Baltimore games, let alone analyzed the subtleties of the play of the line. But there are still several observations worth making.

* Here is the Baltimore Ravens offensive line from left to right (year in league in parentheses): Jared Gaither (2nd), Ben Grubbs (2nd), Jason Brown (4th), Chris Chester (3rd), Willie Anderson (13th). All but one of those guys (Willie Anderson) was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens. Jared Gaither 5th round supplemental draft, Grubbs 1st round, Brown 4th round, Chester 2nd round.

It's not entirely accurate to say the Ravens have invested much more heavily in their offensive line than we have, but there definitely is a difference. Marvel Smith was a 2nd rounder, but that was in 2000. Chris Kemoeatu was a 6th rounder, Darnell Stapleton went undrafted, Willie Colon was a 4th rounder, and Trai Essex and Max Starks were both 3rd rounders.

So there most certainly is a difference, with Baltimore enjoying the development of two guys drafted in the top two rounds (Grubbs and Chester). And unlike the Steelers, who have only really played with the same offensive line for the past 2.5 months, the Ravens are enjoying better play from their line compared to last year thanks to the experience they collected last year. The Steelers on the other hand, have three starters that were either not on the team or not playing much, if any (Kemoeatu, Hartwig, Stapleton).

Let's compare how the Ravens have fared in several statistical categories that shed light on how the offensive line has been playing.

 

Baltimore's Offensive Improvement
Year Rushing Yards/Game Yards/Attempt Sacks (Sacks/Game) Sack % 3rd Down %
2008 144 3.8 23 (1.76) 6.1 % 42 %
2007 112 4 39 (2.43) 6.5 % 38 %

 

Obviously any time you imrprove from being a 5-11 football team to one that is 9-4 and conteding for a playoff spot, you're going to do most things better offensively. And don't let that rushing yards per attempt number throw you off too much. When you're winning football games, particularly winning big which the Ravens have done lately, you're going to be running the ball more frequently in an attempt to milk the clock. And defenses know that. Conversely, when you're trailing, which the Ravens did for much of last year, teams take to the air. Defenses protect against the big play in the passing game, which in turn leads to easier running circumstances.

Anyway, like the Ravens, I expect that if this current core of Steelers offensive linemen (Chris K, Justin Hartwig, Darnell Stapleton, Willie Colon) stay healthy and continue to get experience playing together, then we too will improve in similar statistical categories. Of course, many of us, myself included are hoping the team makes it a priority to secure significant 1st Day help along the line in the 2009 Draft. And it's not yet clear what the plans are for Max Starks and Marvel Smith, as well as whether or not rookie Tony Hills might be ready to play next year or not.

Finally, it's worth noting that the Baltimore Ravens changed offensive line coaches. Gone is Chris Foerster, who served as the team's offensive line coach since 2005.  The Ravens line was miserable in '05, better in '06, and not very good in '07. In 2004, his last year in Miami, his line surrendered the second most sacks in the league (52) and tied for last in yards per rush (3.5). Foerster was hired by San Francisco this year, and I suppose it should surprise no one that the 49ers are 25th in rushing yards, and 3rd worst in sacks allowed (45).

In 2008, first year head coach John Harbaugh brought in John Matsko, who was the offensive line coach during the glory years of the St. Louis Rams earlier this decade. In the late 80s, Matsko coached the offensive line of the USC Trojans to 3 straight Rose Bowls. He also coached perennial Pro Bowlers Willie Roaf, Will Shields, Brian Waters, and Adam Timmerman during his stints in Kansas City and New Orleans.

By no means is the Baltimore Ravens offensive line dominant, but they're trending in the right direction with Matsko developing their mostly very young line. It's hard to quantify the impact of coaching at the NFL level at offensive line, but I think it is definitely a factor. Matsko better have a better idea of how to block James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who combined for 4 of the 5 Steelers sacks on the night.

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