OWINGS MILLS — Michael Oher has moved several yards over to his left, a relatively short journey that returns him back to his roots: protecting the blind side of the quarterback.
It’s a natural move for the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive tackle given his background immortalized in a best-selling novel and popular movie about his life: "The Blind Side."
Now, the defending AFC North champions are shifting Oher back to where he started two years ago for them, where he was an All-American at Ole Miss and as a blue-chip high school recruit after being adopted by the wealthy, nurturing Tuohy family following his odyssey from a homeless teenager whose extremely rough childhood included his paternal father being murdered and his mother being addicted to crack cocaine. And Oher overcame every obstacle to make it to the NFL.
Aligning Oher at left tackle is being done out of necessity at this time given the unexcused absence of left offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie due to personal issues that includes serious financial problems and perhaps a back ailment.
It could wind up being a permanent move if the Ravens ultimately decide that McKinnie, who’s on the reserve/did not report list and being fined $30,000 per day for not reporting to training camp under the NFL collective bargaining agreement.
"It’s really no big deal," Oher said. "I got a lot of snaps at left tackle in the spring and right tackle. I played both my first year and second year, so it’s no big deal. I’m a good enough athlete to play either way. So, it’s no problem with me.”
That’s what the Ravens are banking on should the uncertain situation with McKinnie continue to go in the wrong direction.
Although Oher didn’t excel at left tackle two seasons ago after replacing a bad-backed and unreliable Jared Gaither, the 6-foot-4, 315-pounder does appear to be an improved candidate for the left side.
Two years ago, Oher was extremely prone to penalties and had the occasional lapse in assignments. Most notably, Oher didn’t pick up blitzing Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu in a key December loss. And he sacked quarterback Joe Flacco and forced him to fumble, leading to the Steelers’ game-winning touchdown.
The Ravens are confident that Oher is better prepared now to play left tackle.
"At left tackle, a lot," Ravens offensive line coach Andy Moeller said when asked about Oher’s readiness in comparison to his last stint there. "He already has a year under his belt over there. He knows the personnel he is going against. His sets are more consistent on the left, and the great thing about Mike is if we have to come over here and he has to go back on the right side, you do it and it’s no big deal for him. Michael Oher is a tremendous asset. He is a great, versatile football player, and you just line him up and let him go. He’ll be fine on the left side. He’ll be great.”
Oher moved back to right tackle last season where he started every game and had arguably his top season since being drafted in the first round with the 23rd overall pick and signed to a five-year, $13.8 million contract that includes $7.8 million in guaranteed money.
Working in tandem with Pro Bowl offensive guard Marshal Yanda, Oher seemed to find a comfort zone over on the right side.
Oher is clearly the Ravens’ most athletic offensive lineman with a quick first step, fanning out to his left to wall off pass rushers.
Lean and muscular with a lower body-fat percentage, Oher clearly has the physical tools to play left tackle.
“It’s as quick as a lineman as we’ve got," Moeller said. "He can move, run, cut off, reach, physical at the point of attack, and Michael, really, when you think about it, since he has gone from right to left to right, to have the ability to go back to left, is versatile on both sides and can set and play left tackle. His experience has been great.
"Of course, the guys we have to block here on a daily basis, he gets great work on there. He just plugs in and goes to whatever side we put him on. He just plugs and goes. So as far as what he can work on, he can work on things that we all need to work on, pad level, consistency, both in the running and pass block, but that’s no different than any of our guys up front. He’s been great.”
For Oher, retracing his old footsteps at left tackle involves getting back to what he did in college and for several games in the NFL.
Durable and tough, Oher is honing his skills for the subtleties of the position.
"Yeah, it’s just muscle memory and things like that," said Oher, who’s under contract through the 2013 season and due an $865,000 base salary this year. "It’s the same footwork, but it’s just like going from left hand to right hand. It just takes repetition to get your technique back down, and it shouldn’t be a problem.”
The bottom line for Oher is his first steps will be to his left instead of his right.
It’s a rare tackle that can play both sides.
“It’s challenging in that your footwork is the opposite of what it is," Moeller said. "We all know it’s the blind side of the quarterback on the left side, but he is really fluid on both sides and really moving to his right or to his left and his right to left in the stance.
"It’s easier for him than most, really more so than anybody I can think that I’ve ever coached. So, for him it is. The assignments aren’t so hard. It’s just flipped over right. How to do it and the technique setting and particularly the pass-rushers you will get on the left side is different.”
Besides getting acclimated to his old position again, Oher also is getting accustomed to playing with veteran left offensive guard Bobbie Williams.
That’s not tough considering Williams’ expertise heading into his 13th NFL season.
"Bobbie is a great guy, man," Oher said. "He communicates great. He’s been around. He’s a veteran, he’s a great player. I like being on the side of him. He’s physical and things like that, so I think he’s a great addition to the team. I’m looking forward to playing with him this year.”
What’s going to be different and extremely challenging for Oher is contending with the superior pass rushers that populate the right side of defensive front sevens around the NFL and dot the Ravens’ schedule.
If Oher stays at left tackle, he’ll likely be assigned to block Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Trent Cole, Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali, Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, Houston Texans defensive end Antonio Smith and outside linebacker Brooks Reed, Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison, Washington Redskins outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
"Yeah, it’s different guys, but nowadays, you’ve got great pass rushers on each side of the ball," Oher said. "So, it really doesn’t matter. You’ve just got to do your job.”