Blocking drills often degenerated into a lost cause against a swaggering defense in the August heat of Westminster. Both starting offensive tackles, a once-unproven Jared Gaither and Adam Terry, were sidelined for the majority of the preseason with sprained ankles.
And the challenge of replacing retired All-Pro offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden was a constant topic of conversation.
Things definitely looked bleak for the youngest offensive line in the NFL.
Yet, they weren’t really worried at all.
"We knew that everything was going to be all right," center Jason Brown said. "We took care of all those doubts you all might have. We knew what it was going to take and we took care of that in practice.
"People talking about the offensive line said we were a question mark, but we never thought that way. As hard as we’ve been working since back in March, we took care of any concerns and doubts before the season started."
Brown’s assessment proved to be correct.
Gaither and Terry recovered from injuries just in time for the start of the regular season. And Gaither, a 6-foot-9, 330-pound left tackle from White Plains has emerged as a solid replacement for Ogden in just his fifth year of organized football after taking up the sport as a senior at Eleanor Roosevelt in Greenbelt.
Despite a season-ending knee injury to right guard Marshal Yanda and various injuries to Gaither (a painful sprained right shoulder that has relegated him to blocking with one arm at times), Terry (arthroscopic knee surgery) and veteran Willie Anderson (sprained ankle), the offensive line has jelled with rookie quarterback Joe Flacco only sacked 30 times and the running game ranked second in the NFL with a 149.9 rushing average.
"We’re like brothers on the offensive line," Gaither said. "We’ve been doing this all year, having good games on the offensive line and the running backs toting the rock. I’m extremely proud. We fought through the injuries and are pretty well and good right now."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said that the coaching staff didn’t settle on how they wanted to configure the line until June. Then, those plans were often disrupted by injuries.
Besides the players’ improvement and perseverance, there has been a strong voice behind the scenes guiding the development.
It’s offensive line coach John Matsko, an old-school taskmaster who has coached blocking luminaries like Tony Boselli, Willie Roaf, Will Shields, Adam Timmerman and Orlando Pace.
It has been Matsko’s mixture of yelling and constructive criticism along with assistant offensive line coach Andy Moeller that has built the offensive line from a suspect group into a credible unit.
"It’s just a credit to John Matsko," Harbaugh said. "It starts with John Matsko. He’s got to be the best offensive line coach in the league. We kind of felt that going into the season, but to see what he’s done with this group of guys sure confirms it.”
The Ravens have rushed for 124 first downs for the second most in the NFL and have scored 17 touchdowns on the ground while averaging 4.0 yards per carry.
They are the only NFL team to have players with over 800, 600 and 400 rushing yards, using a committee approach with Pro Bowl fullback Le’Ron McClain (832 yards, eight touchdowns), Willis McGahee (647 yards, six touchdowns) and rookie Ray Rice (454 yards, 4.2 average) as well as a hard-nosed approach on the offensive line.
"It’s their first order of business to be physical,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not just the running game you want to be physical. You want to be physical in pass protection, and you’ve got to be able to pass protect in the NFL. You can’t just line up and run it 60 times and win in this league. You’ve got to be able to protect.
"You’ve got to understand protection schemes, adjustments and how people are pressuring you. The intellectual part of it, John has done a great job and our offensive linemen have picked that up very well. Especially for a young group that hasn’t played together, I think we’re way ahead of the curve with that."
Matsko, who regularly deflects praise and politely declines attention and interviews, tends to follow the break ’em down, build ’em back up coaching philosophy.
In film sessions, he’s known for being brutally honest. He’s also known for reinforcing players’ confidence with heavy praise when it’s deserved.
"He’s a challenge," Brown said. "He has individually broken down film on each and every one of us. He knows our strengths and weaknesses. He makes us better.
"To tell you the truth, I don’t know how we got him. He’s the best that’s out there. To have him as our offensive line coach, he has brought us up leaps and bounds in one year."
The Ravens are set up well for the future along the offensive line.
Anderson, 33, is the elder statesman of the line as a reliable four-time Pro Bowl selection.
Left offensive guard Ben Grubbs, a first-round draft pick last year, has drawn praise for his work as a mobile downfield blocker and technician adept at pulling.
Brown, an impending unrestricted free agent whom general manager Ozzie Newsome has expressed interest in re-signing, has grown into a leader and a stout, quick presence in the middle who was named to Sports Illustrated’s All-Pro team a year ago.
Yanda is an aggressive, tough blocker expected to recover from three torn knee ligaments to play next season. Former second-round pick Chris Chester has been impressive lately filling in for Yanda after drawing criticism earlier this season.
And Terry is a big, athletic and versatile swing player capable of playing left or right tackle when his health cooperates.
"I think it all started with Ozzie bringing all of us in here, and bringing in the same type of guys," Gaither said. "I know he’s proud and we’re proud."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.