By Matt Vensel, The Baltimore Sun
5:59 PM PST, December 22, 2012
Jonathan Ogden stood in the hallway at the Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills, his Afro nearly scraping the ceiling. The towering former offensive tackle fiddled with a tiny new phone in his massive hands, nonchalantly describing one of the toughest positions in football and how Michael Oher was faring at it.
Ogden, the first draft pick in Ravens history, could soon become the franchise's first homegrown player to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. With his size, strength and athleticism, Ogden is seen by many as the prototypical left tackle. And he was selected to 11 Pro Bowls in his career.
Needless to say, Ogden's standards for how the pivotal position should be played are a little lofty.
Finally, after making sure to dull any criticism of Oher, the Ravens' current left tackle who has become a poster boy for the struggles of the entire offensive line, Ogden empathized and conceded: "It's tough out there."
"It's very rare to have a player at the position where you don't have to worry about them," he said.
The Ravens aren't outwardly expressing any concern for Oher, who has had trouble keeping his hands on pass rushers in recent weeks. Protection issues with the entire offensive line, not just Oher, have played a role in the uneven play of quarterback Joe Flacco. Oher's struggles have been the most glaring, though, putting his future at the position Ogden dominated for a decade in doubt.
Entering Sunday's game against the New York Giants, only six NFL quarterbacks have been sacked more than Flacco, who has been taken down behind the line of scrimmage 34 times, already three more than a season ago. The average time before Flacco is sacked is 3.47 seconds — linemen try to hold their blocks for 3 seconds — and all but one of those sacks took longer than 2.5 seconds.
Oher has been beaten for more sacks than any other Ravens lineman, and only four NFL tackles have allowed more sacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
Whoever is to blame, the sacks are piling up, especially the ones coming from Flacco's blind side.
Oher was the subject of the best-selling book, "The Blind Side," which glorified the left tackle position while detailing Oher's uplifting life story. But Oher's play there has lapsed as he has been beaten for a sack in each of the past five games, according to Pro Football Focus.
Six of the eight sacks he has allowed in 2012 came over that span. Based on charting by Pro Football Focus, in addition to allowing the most sacks by a Ravens lineman this season, Oher has also surrendered the most overall pressures (40) on the team.
"You never want the quarterback getting hit. You want to limit that," Oher, 26, said. "We have to do it as a group, as an offense to help limit the hits on Joe and things like that."
In back-to-back losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Washington Redskins, Oher watched as his man got a step on him and swatted the ball out of Flacco's right hand. Those lost fumbles were costly in the losses and put the spotlight on Oher, something no lineman wants.
Ogden said Flacco's pocket awareness could have been better, but "that's a loss" for the tackle.
"Quarterbacks hold balls, but you don't point the finger at the quarterback," he said.
Critics have called for the Ravens to replace Oher with Bryant McKinnie, who was the team's starting left tackle last season, and move Oher back to right tackle, the position he manned in 2009 and 2011. But Ravens coach John Harbaugh has continually defended Oher and his fellow linemen, saying a week ago that he wasn't seriously considering making a change at left tackle.
On Wednesday, though, McKinnie, 33, who has not practiced well enough to bully his way back into the lineup, admitted increased playing time was a possibility, maybe as soon as Sunday.
"If I was out there, maybe some things would be a little bit different," McKinnie said.
Still, between the moments when Flacco has either gotten chased from the pocket or knocked on his backside, Ogden has seen progress from Oher and rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele.
"They're showing that they are improving. Are there better tackles in the league? Probably, yes," he said. "But there are not a lot of them. I would take our two tackles over a lot of guys."
The value of a tackle
For the past three decades, left tackle has been regarded as the most important position on the offensive line and among the most critical in football. It's a causal relationship. Mean-spirited pass rushers get paid handsomely to punish handsome quarterbacks, and left tackles are valued for their ability to protect the blind sides of those multi-million-dollar franchise cornerstones.
"Most times you didn't have to worry about me," said Ogden, who retired after the 2007 season.
Frustrated opposing defensive coordinators did, though, and started moving their top pass rushers away from Ogden's side. Since then, Ogden has seen a change in how defenses attack offenses — a change for which he feels lockdown left tackles like Orlando Pace, Walter Jones and himself are partially responsible.
"People are more varied in the way that they rush the quarterback," Ogden said. "Take Aldon Smith, for example, in San Francisco. He doesn't just play on the right end. The great players on defense aren't locked into one spot anymore. They will find matchup advantages, mismatches. They look for that [instead of] how Lawrence Taylor just used to line up against the left tackle."
The current-day Giants move talented, athletic pass rushers, such as Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka, all around their defensive line to confuse offenses.
Veteran Ravens center Matt Birk said "nowadays, there's so much volume on defense," compared to when he grinded his way into the NFL in 1998. The quality pass rushers are more prevalent. The blitzes are more exotic. And the scouting is more advanced.
"Sooner or later you are going to be exposed as a weak link, or you are going to hit them right in the mouth," he said.
But to keep their left tackles from being exposed and their right-handed quarterbacks from getting crushed, many teams, including the Ravens, often shift their protection schemes to the left, with the left guard there to help the tackle if he gets beat hard to the inside.
In passing situations, teams also leave running backs or tight ends to block on the blind side or at least ask them to throw a hip or a shoulder into a blind-side blitzer on their way into their routes.
Lending an overmatched left tackle that much support, though, will leave other offensive linemen — often the right guard, right tackle, or both — alone to fend off other pass rushers, according to Ross Tucker, a SiriusXM NFL Radio host who played five NFL seasons as an interior lineman.
"You can make a case that when it comes to pass protection, playing right tackle is harder than left tackle, depending on who you are going against and what the play-caller is calling," he said.
Ogden also concedes the left tackle position has been devalued a bit, on the field at least, but it is still important.
"If you have a weak left tackle, they prefer to exploit that position because most quarterbacks are right-handed, so that's the blind side," he said. "That's where you get sacks, strips, fumbles."
Oher's future in flux
Sacks, strips and fumbles at the expense of Oher in recent weeks have left some to question not just his short-term job security at left tackle, but his long-term future at the position as well.
Oher will be a free agent after the 2013 season and should be in line for an increase in salary from the $3.085 million he is slated to make next season after triggering escalator clauses in his rookie deal. The Ravens have had preliminary contract talks with Oher's agent, Jimmy Sexton.
Tackles Trent Williams (Washington), Joe Thomas (Cleveland), Jake Long (Miami) and Jordan Gross (Carolina) are among the highest-paid non-quarterbacks, each earning eight figures in 2012.
The Ravens declined comment for this article, but their perception of Oher — is he their left tackle of the future or is he better suited to be a mauling right tackle? — will ultimately dictate how deep into their pockets they are willing to dig to retain one of the NFL's most popular players.
"Because he's not that smooth, and because he's not a technician, he would probably be best inside or maybe at right tackle," Tucker said. "But they are kind of past that unless they get a better alternative at left tackle. Maybe he would be more of a Pro Bowl-caliber player at left guard, but do you want that or a functioning left tackle? Because he is a functioning left tackle."
Charley Casserly, a former NFL general manager who is now an analyst for NFL Network, says Oher has "shown a lot of promise" and that he has a chance to be "a decent left tackle."
Casserly, who isn't buying the argument that the position is any less valuable than when Taylor stalked quarterbacks, also said the Ravens, as perennial playoff contenders who often pick late in the first round of the NFL draft, are in an "awfully difficult situation" to find a better option.
"I know he has some points in there when he gets beat, but it's more positive than negative," Casserly said. "We know he can play right tackle, so you've got that one solved. But you would like him to be the left tackle because that would certainly help your team in the long run more."
For now, both Oher and the Ravens are concerned with the near future. The Ravens have lost three games in a row and host the desperate Giants, who are 16th in the NFL in sacks but have the personnel to terrorize offensive linemen, at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday. After that, the Ravens travel to Cincinnati to play the Bengals, who lead the NFL in sacks, in the season finale.
As Ogden said, it's tough out there, and it certainly isn't getting any easier for Oher.
"No one wants to hear excuses. You've got to make the block," Ogden said with a serious tone, his phone now stashed away in his pocket. "The good ones do it and keep trying to get better."
Breaking down the offensive line
Left tackle Michael Oher has allowed more sacks and pressures than any other Ravens offensive lineman, according to Pro Football Focus, but there is plenty of blame to be spread around the huddle.
Here is a look at how each offensive lineman has fared in pass protection in 2012.
LT Michael Oher
QB hits: 9
Total pressures: 40
LG Jah Reid/Bobbie Williams/Ramon Harewood
QB hits: 5
Total pressures: 35
C Matt Birk
QB hits: 4
Total pressures: 22
RG Marshal Yanda
QB hits: 3
Total pressures: 10
RT Kelechi Osemele
QB hits: 6
Total pressures: 36
Note: Some sacks and pressures are credited to other players, such as running backs and tight ends.
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