OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- All it took was a promotion, a trade, some recovery time and a new offensive coordinator.
That's how the Baltimore Ravens' offensive line went from being the team's biggest weakness in 2013 to a major strength a year later. No other group improved more on the Ravens this season, and it's possible no group improved more throughout the entire league.
According to the Pro Football Focus rankings, the Ravens' offensive line jumped 20 spots to No. 3 in the NFL this season. Only the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles ranked higher than the Ravens.
So, how did the Ravens drastically improve in such a short time? They chose to let disappointing first-round pick Michael Oher leave in free agency and promoted Rick Wagner to his spot at right tackle. They traded for Jeremy Zuttah to replace struggling center Gino Gradkowski. They had guards Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele rebound from injuries and dominate up front. And they thrived in their first season with Gary Kubiak's stretch zone-blocking schemes.
The best news for the Ravens is they return their top seven offensive linemen for next season.
“The future is really great for our offensive line," coach John Harbaugh said. "When we first came in here in 2008, we said, ‘You start in the trenches.’ A team is built from the trenches out, and we were pretty strong in the trenches this year. That’s the foundation of our team."
The Ravens' line was key in helping Justin Forsett go from a journeyman running back to the No. 5 rusher in the league. The Ravens averaged 3.1 yards before contact, which was third-best in the NFL. That shows how much push the Ravens' blockers got off the line and how big the running lanes were.
The Ravens' pass protection played a big role in quarterback Joe Flacco having a career year. He was sacked a career-low 19 times -- an amazing number considering Flacco had never been sacked fewer than 31 times in his previous six seasons.
"Once you start playing at a certain level and your coaches develop an expectation, you have to be able to maintain that and be consistent," guard Kelechi Osemele said. "I feel like that was not only for me, but as far as the guys playing to my right and to my left, I think we all expect each other to play at a high level and do what you need to do to be healthy week to week. We just fight for each other. If one of us is having a bad game and we’re not playing as well as we should be playing, I feel like we have the type of men that aren’t afraid to hold each other accountable, and that’s what you need to be successful.”
There is room for improvement for the Ravens' line. Left tackle Eugene Monroe missed five games because of injuries, and he didn't live up to the Ravens' five-year, $37.5 million investment in him. Zuttah was an upgrade over Gradkowski, but he had trouble at the point of attack, especially in that playoff game at Pittsburgh.
The Ravens excelled this past season because of Wagner quietly becoming a stabilizing force on the right side and Yanda and Osemele pushing defenders around on the interior of the line. The Ravens also relied on a couple of rookies, tackle James Hurst and guard John Urschel, to fill in for injured starters.
The continuity in the offensive line is a strength going into next season. If Wagner (foot) can recover in time to start the season, the Ravens would have the same starting offensive line in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2003-04.
"It’s pretty evident. I think if we maintain the same guys in the room, the sky is the limit," Monroe said. "You can watch the film -- we’ve been the most physical line in the league, hands down, and that’s only going to get better."