As the Ravens continue to tinker and revamp their team, the offensive line remains perhaps the biggest question mark.
Right now, the unit is a revolving door, even though it seemed to find some rhythm in Sunday’s 37-26 win over the New England Patriots. The Buffalo Bills will be a much bigger challenge because they have the No. 2 ranked run defense in the NFL led by Von Miller, Gregory Rousseau, Boogie Basham and Jordan Phillips.
The Ravens will counter with guards Ben Powers and Kevin Zeitler, rookie center Tyler Linderbaum and right tackle Morgan Moses, but left tackle remains a mystery. It could be Patrick Mekari, rookie Daniel Faalele or possibly the All Pro himself, Ronnie Stanley, who has played only one game in the last two seasons because of an ankle injury. Stanley dressed in shorts and shoulder pads Wednesday, but Faalele took the repetitions with the first team.
The constant shuffling is one of the major reasons the Ravens are ranked No. 15 in rushing offense, way below their top-five standard of previous seasons. Offensive line play is about chemistry and being in sync, and the Ravens haven’t had any consistency at left tackle, the most important position on the line.
“We’re striving for it,” coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s a position we want to be in, for sure. There is value in having backup guys, a backup plan, with guys who can play different positions because things happen. Ideally, you want to have one group out there just like on defense, just like in the secondary, where you have a group out there as much as you can.”
Starting left tackle Ja’Wuan James ruptured his Achilles tendon in Week 1 and is out for the season. Mekari sprained his ankle against New England and didn’t not practice Wednesday. Faalele replaced Mekari against the Patriots and played reasonably well after a slow start, but he’ll struggle against the Bills’ defensive line.
This situation was somewhat predictable. James was struggling to make it through training camp after missing the entire 2020 and 2021 seasons and Mekari has been bothered by a bad back for years. It was only a matter of time before they missed extensive playing time due to injuries.
The Ravens need Stanley to play. He has had nearly two years to heal, and Harbaugh basically said a week ago that Stanley had to decide on his own when he could return.
The time is now.
“It’s what he sees, it’s what he feels, those two things have to be taken into account,” Harbaugh said. “Ronnie doesn’t want to go out there and we don’t him to go out there if he doesn’t feel he is ready to go. It’s a priority for him to be at his best when he comes back. At some point, he is going to have to jump in there. It could be this week.”
In his first five seasons in Baltimore after being selected No. 6 overall in the 2016 draft, Stanley became one of the top left tackles in the NFL. When coming out of Notre Dame, though, he was criticized for his work ethic and there were times earlier in his pro career when Stanley decided not to practice when he should have been on the field.
There are whispers of the same criticism again from the Ravens’ fan base and from some within the organization, but patience is needed. When a player that large (6 feet 6, 315 pounds) has an ankle injury and multiple surgeries, it’s going to take time to heal.
But let’s be honest. Stanley will never be mentioned in the same breath as tough guys like Orlando Brown Sr. (nicknamed Zeus), guard Jeff Blackshear or nose tackle Tony Siragusa.
His return, though, could mark a turning point. In the past, the Ravens prided themselves on winning time of possession, but this year opponents have held the ball nearly five minutes more per game.
The Ravens have allowed the most passing and total yards in the league this season, which doesn’t bode well against Buffalo. If you want keep players like Bills quarterback Josh Allen and wide receiver Stefon Diggs off the field, the best way to do it is to control the tempo.
There is nothing more demoralizing in a football game than an offense with a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter running the ball effectively. That’s almost as good as any defense.
This Ravens offense still has that potential, especially with J.K Dobbins returning as the starting running back and Justice Hill emerging as his primary backup. But the key is having all five starters on the offensive line playing consistently.
Against the Patriots, quarterback Lamar Jackson powered the running game with 107 yards on 11 carries. It worked Sunday, but a quarterback shouldn’t be that exposed to punishment, especially against Buffalo.
The idea is to be balanced enough to run or pass depending on the opponent’s weaknesses and the down and distance. Buffalo could be without top safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer and cornerbacks Tre’Davious White and Christian Benford on Sunday, so that gives the Ravens some leeway.
Faalele isn’t the best answer at left tackle, but at least he will get more playing time to develop. Another option the team might consider is moving Moses to the left side because of his athleticism. If Mekari returns, the Ravens should insert him as left guard because he is more technically sound than Powers, but Harbaugh prefers having bigger bodies on the line. Mekari weighs 305 pounds compared to 338 for Powers.
The Ravens have plenty of options, including David Sharpe, who could be elevated from the practice squad in an emergency. The versatility is a good thing to have, but the best offensive lines are cohesive because they have played together consistently.
The Ravens need to find that kind of rhythm.