When it comes to the offensive line, the 2014 story of the Baltimore Ravens feels similar to 2012, when the team won the Super Bowl.
As the 2012 playoffs began, the Ravens made some changes along the offensive front, shifting Kelechi Osemele to left guard, Michael Oher to right tackle and inserting Bryant McKinnie at left tackle. The changes came unexpectedly, but paid off.
Baltimore’s near-unbeatable offensive line helped fuel the offense during the Super Bowl run. This year, changes were made again, which could factor into Baltimore’s playoff changes.
Poor play caused adjustments in 2012, but injuries have been the reason for changes up front for Baltimore in 2014. In Week 16, starting tackles Eugene Monroe and Ricky Wagner suffered injuries, with Wagner’s season coming to an abrupt an end. With only one healthy backup tackle – James Hurst – the Ravens were in a bind.
How could they replace both tackle positions so late in the season? The Ravens implemented their famous “Next Man Up” mentality and inserted Hurst in at left tackle, rookie John Urschel in at right guard and slid guard Marshal Yanda over to right tackle.
In the two games since the changes were made, the results have not been so bad. Yanda has adjusted well to playing on the outside. Hurst has not been good yet he’s managed to avoid costly slip-ups. But most importantly, Urschel has played as if he started the entire season.
The starting lineup was not new to Urschel when he took the field as Baltimore’s starting right guard in Week 17; he earned starts at left guard against Tampa Bay and Atlanta earlier in the season.
Now four starts into his NFL career, Urschel has shown the signs of a backup more than capable of stepping in as a starter when needed. The fifth-round 2014 draft choice joined the team with modest expectations. All three starting interior line spots were set, and the Ravens already had Gino Gradkowski and Ryan Jensen as backup linemen via recent draft choices.
But by now, it is safe to say Urschel has ascended above his backup peers and established himself as the best non-starter on the offensive line (when all the starters are healthy).
The sample size is small, but Urschel has played well, especially during Baltimore’s Wild Card round win on Saturday in Pittsburgh.
With just three NFL starts to his name entering the game, it would be expected for a fifth-round rookie to struggle on the road in Pittsburgh while accompanied by postseason jitters. Instead Urschel rose to the occasion and was one of Baltimore’s best linemen against the Steelers.
Let’s take a closer look at Urschel’s un-rookie-like performance.
The former Nittany Lion was most effective in the run game.
On Bernard Pierce’s touchdown run, Osemele’s block was the one that received the most hype – and deservedly so – but Urschel’s block was a key to the play as well.
The entire line blocks toward the right initially, and Urschel engages with the defenders early in the play.
Having the entire line block to the right shifts the defense that way, which opens up a run lane to Pierce’s left.
Urschel’s block on the right side helps keep things clean for Pierce so that he can effortlessly make the cutback without being impeded.
Urschel is far from the strongest of offensive linemen, but here he displays more than adequate strength to engage, create leverage against the defender and then hold off long enough for his running back to sneak past.
Footwork is also key for Urschel. With his quick and nimble feet being one of his best traits coming out of Penn State, Urschel displays on this play the value of being able to move laterally while also maintaining the balance to block a defensive lineman.
That block by Urschel was good, but his best run block play of the game came in the second quarter (the play is at 4:46 in the second quarter; it is much more impressive in real time).
On a run to the right side, Urschel engages with Steelers defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt.
As the run play develops for running back Justin Forsett, Urschel begins to carry Tuitt to the right, and maintains leverage on the defender.
Urschel’s blocking ability allows the patient runner Forsett to follow behind his rookie guard until the run lane opens up.
Tuitt continues to be manhandled by Urschel as the Ravens lineman carries the rookie defender downfield.
Forsett has two run lanes opening up, but with Urschel’s momentum carrying Tuitt to the outside, the running back waits and lets the lane off Urschel’s left shoulder open up.
Urschel’s ability to completely wipe Tuitt out of the play gives Forsett a clean run lane.
In terms of non-Yanda run blocks this season for the Ravens, this is one of the best. Not only does Urschel have the quick feet and acceleration to move laterally or upfield to locate a defender, he also has the attitude of sticking with a player and blocking him at full effort until the whistle.
Run blocking was Urschel’s shining trait against Pittsburgh, however he also fared well against the pass rush.
For the majority of the game, Urschel was untested in terms of interior pass rushers, but when opportunities arose, he handled himself well.
In a one-on-one pass block against Pittsburgh nose tackle Steve McLendon (who dominated center Jeremy Zuttah on a few plays), Urschel excelled.
Opting to help out Osemele, Zuttah lets off his block of McLendon and hands it off to Urschel.
A key on this play is the fact that Forsett comes out of the backfield as a receiving threat, leaving just the offensive line to protect quarterback Joe Flacco.
As Forsett leaves the backfield, Urschel is left on an island with McLendon.
Urschel sinks his hips and preps himself for an oncoming rush by McLendon. He has enough strength to absorb the rush and fend off McLendon.
A solid jab by Urschel helps him create a clean middle of the pocket for Flacco.
As Urschel plays more, we will see more pass blocking opportunities, which will make it easier to judge his ability. But so far, he has held his own in that department.
Against New England, there is a good chance Urschel is on the field again. If Monroe is a no-go, Urschel will surely play, but if Monroe returns to the starting lineup, who knows what the starting five will be?
Would Hurst be moved to right tackle and Yanda back to right guard? Or would Monroe replace Hurst, but the right side stays the same? The latter seems like a much better option.
This year’s Baltimore team has had no shortage of offensive line injuries, however the unit has played well through the absences. Having capable backups is a necessity, and the luxury of a versatile, young backup such as Urschel is a good commodity for the Ravens.
In just four NFL starts, Urschel has shown some qualities of a potential first-team lineman if/when that time comes with the Ravens.