Drawing the (offensive) line in AFC North

July, 5, 2012
7/05/12
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Ravens/SteelersGetty ImagesThe Ravens are counting on experience, while Pittsburgh is banking on youth and pedigree.
The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers share similar belief systems, from building a team through the draft to maintaining cohesion in the front office to relying on a quarterback-attacking 3-4 defense. The NFL's version of the Hatfields & McCoys, the Ravens and Steelers have been philosophical twins throughout most of the past decade.

Where the Ravens and Steelers differ this year, and differ drastically, is on the offensive line. The Ravens are banking on experience, and the Steelers are going with youth.

Which team is making the right decision for this season? The final standings will let everyone know. While the Bengals will have a say in the division race, the offensive lines will go a long way in determining whether the Ravens are better than the Steelers, or vice versa.

There are risks and rewards with both strategies, because Baltimore and Pittsburgh are going to extremes. The Ravens have the oldest offensive line in the NFL, the Steelers one of the youngest.

If you want a line with cohesion, you'll take the Ravens. If you want a line with fresh legs and a strong pedigree, you'll take the Steelers. If you worry about a line breaking down, you'll want to stay away from Baltimore. And if you are concerned about rookie mistakes, you'll distance yourself from Pittsburgh.

The Ravens are in the most trouble, if you believe the "Theory of 150" from ESPN.com's John Clayton. This is how Clayton explains it: "If a team lets its starting offensive line exceed the total age of 150 years for five starters, the clock is ticking on its remaining success." A cumulative age of 150 means an average age of 30 for five starters.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Charles LeClaire/US PresswirePittsburgh's offensive line allowed 42 sacks last season -- tied for ninth-worst in the NFL.
Baltimore's projected starting lineup: left tackle Bryant McKinnie (turns 33 in September); left guard Bobbie Williams (turns 36 in September); center Matt Birk (turns 36 this month); right guard Marshal Yanda (turns 28 in September); and right tackle Michael Oher (26). That's a grand total of 159. In other words, the Ravens are the Rolling Stones of offensive lines.

As Clayton points out, three of the six lowest-rated lines last year were affected by the Theory of 150: the Bears (32nd), Giants (31st) and Redskins (27th). The Ravens' linemen, however, aren't paying much attention to the criticism.

"Trust me, people don’t have anything to worry about,” said Oher, who is entering his fifth season with the Ravens. “This is the most confident I’ve been in our group. I really like the pieces in our room. I think we’re going to be great."

The Steelers will be equally as great if they live up to draft expectations. Pittsburgh's commitment to building an offensive line shows in that the Steelers have used two first-round picks (center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro) and two second-round ones (offensive tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams) on blockers in the past three drafts.

The only projected starter not drafted since 2010 is left guard Willie Colon, who hasn't even turned 30. The average age of Pittsburgh's projected line is 24, nearly eight years younger than the Ravens' offensive line.

"I love what the Steelers have done in that they have built an incredibly talented foundation for years to come without sacrificing too much for 2012," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "If I were to pick one NFL offensive line for the long term, it would be Pittsburgh's. But doing so came at a price in terms of high draft picks. Still, this is the best way to build a great offensive line."

Pittsburgh needed to create a foundation after last year's offensive line continued to crack. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Steelers used a league-high 25 different offensive line combinations in 2011.

The challenge for Pittsburgh is getting DeCastro and Adams ready to start as rookies. This isn't typical for a Steelers organization that has started only one rookie offensive lineman in a season opener the past decade (it was Pouncey).

What has hurt the development of DeCastro and Adams is the fact they were limited to one full-team minicamp this spring because of a rule prohibiting rookies from practicing with their pro teams until the academic calendar year of the school they attended is over.

"I think in the big scheme of things, when we push toward the fall and winter, hopefully it will be insignificant if they do what they're supposed to do and we do what we're supposed to do," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "Obviously, it creates some short-term misery. But, as professionals, we all should be able to overcome that."

While the Ravens' offensive line is much older than the Steelers' line right now, Baltimore can get young quickly. The Ravens have used recent draft picks on their offensive line, too.

In the past two drafts, Baltimore has selected guard Kelechi Osemele in the second round, tackle Jah Reid in the third and center Gino Gradkowski in the fourth. But, unlike the Steelers, the Ravens have decided to wait on putting them in the starting lineup. One could assume all three will be starters by next season alongside Oher and Yanda.

"What is nice about how Baltimore is doing things is that they not only now have good overall offensive line depth, and some young guys that can play several positions, but they also don't have to thrust youthful players to the field before they are ready," Williamson said.

The similarities is that their success rests on the play of their left tackles. There are questions whether McKinnie, who didn't practice during the Ravens' mandatory minicamp last month because he was nine pounds over his targeted weight, can maintain his level of play through a full season. And there are questions whether Adams, who managed 19 reps in the 225-pound bench press at the NFL combine (a low number for an offensive lineman), is strong enough to protect Ben Roethlisberger's blind side right away.

"To start right away is definitely a goal, but I'm trying to just learn and be ready to contribute, help this team any way I can," Adams told FoxSports Ohio. "We have one goal in Pittsburgh and that's to win a Super Bowl, so it's my job to just do whatever I have to do to help that."

For the past two seasons, a fine line has separated the Ravens and Steelers, who both finished 12-4 in 2010 and 2011. This year, another line could be what separates the two heated rivals.

Jamison Hensley

ESPN Ravens reporter

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