OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Short-term injuries along the defensive line are coming at the wrong time with run-heavy Tennessee coming to town for a rematch from last year’s postseason, but offensive line concerns pose the greater threat to the Ravens’ Super Bowl hopes in 2020.
It was 10 months ago that Baltimore suffered the stunning playoff loss to the Titans, but that game also serves as a reminder of how much an offensive line that paved the way for a record-setting season has changed. The Ravens were always going to miss retired eight-time Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda, but the loss of All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley to a season-ending ankle injury earlier this month transformed concern into a full-blown crisis that boiled over in last Sunday’s upset loss at New England. Not only was right tackle D.J. Fluker benched at halftime for poor play, but poor snaps from center Matt Skura torpedoed multiple drives for an offense that was already struggling to rediscover its 2019 form.
Might those factors prompt Baltimore to trot out its fifth different starting offensive line combination of the season against the Titans? Last year, the Ravens had the benefit of using the same starting five for the first 11 games of the season before Skura sustained a season-ending knee injury and backup Patrick Mekari seamlessly filled in at center the rest of the way, maintaining continuity for an offense that became the first in NFL history to average more than 200 yards rushing and 200 passing yards per game.
“I don’t keep track of exactly who’s had the most continuity on their offensive line across the league other than the teams we play,” said head coach John Harbaugh about the challenge of not having the same starting five every week. “That’s something that would be valuable. We don’t have that right now, but we have enough players to be successful and guys that want to play and work hard and have been here. So, we’ll just go to work.”
The Ravens replacing Skura at center with Mekari would mean four of the five offensive line positions would be manned by a different player than the Week 1 lineup that was last used against Pittsburgh just three weeks ago. But another option would be moving current left guard Bradley Bozeman (a two-year starter at center for Alabama), which would put a different player at each of the five positions from what we saw at the beginning of that Week 8 loss to the Steelers.
A 2019 rookie free agent who played offensive tackle at Cal-Berkeley, Mekari showed his value at center last season, but he’s already started three games at right guard this season and fared surprisingly well at right tackle against the Patriots. His play figures to be pivotal in whatever combination the Ravens use next.
“Pat is a very good player, a very versatile player. That’s one of his best strengths,” Harbaugh said. “Nobody works harder than Pat Mekari. He just really understands what we’re doing. I think he could play any position on the offensive line, and he’s played the extra o-lineman this year, which is kind of a tight end position.”
Questions about the offensive line will persist beyond Sunday’s meeting with Tennessee, but the Ravens could be tasked with trying to slow Derrick Henry and the league’s sixth-ranked rushing attack without their two best defensive linemen. Defensive end Calais Campbell (calf) and nose tackle Brandon Williams (ankle) both sat out Wednesday’s practice after Harbaugh was noncommittal about their Week 11 availability at the start of the week.
With Campbell sidelined against the Patriots and Williams exiting the game after the fifth defensive play, the Patriots ran for 173 yards in Baltimore’s 23-17 loss. Rookie defensive tackle Justin Madubuike understands he and his teammates will need to step up to slow Henry, who ran for nearly 200 yards against the Ravens in last January’s playoff meeting.
“They’re great vets, great parts of our defense, and a standard here [with] the Ravens, and it’s a brotherhood,” said Madubuike about Campbell and Williams. “It’s next man up, but we’re all equipped to handle any situation on defense when a guy goes down. It’s a standard here with the Ravens, like I said. We just have to get back on the field and get to work and knock this run out against the Titans.”
Veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith also missed Wednesday’s practice as he continues to deal with the ankle injury that sidelined him against the Patriots. Having placed cornerback Terrell Bonds (knee) on injured reserve on Tuesday, the Ravens claimed former Denver cornerback Davontae Harris off waivers.
Cincinnati’s 2018 fifth-round pick out of Illinois State, Harris played defense in only one game for the Broncos this season, allowing 117 yards and a touchdown in coverage. The 25-year-old has appeared in 26 career games for the Bengals and Broncos, collecting 40 tackles and breaking up three passes.
Signed to the practice squad on Tuesday, former Seattle tight end Luke Willson took part in Wednesday’s workout and remains an option to be promoted for Sunday’s game against the Titans. The Ravens currently have just one true tight end — 2019 Pro Bowl selection Mark Andrews — on the active roster, but Wilson and fellow veteran tight ends Xavier Grimble and Sean Culkin are on the practice squad.
“He’s a guy that our personnel department knows really well,” said Harbaugh about Willson. “Of course, we’ve played against him before, so we know him a little bit. A good guy and an experienced player, so that helps us. It’s good to have a guy that’s been out there before and knows how to play. We’ll just have to see how he fits into what we’re doing.”
In a positive development, veteran inside linebacker L.J. Fort was a full participant in practice after missing the last two games with a finger injury.
Five Tennessee starters sat out Wednesday’s practice for health-related reasons, a list including edge defender Jadeveon Clowney (knee), wide receiver Adam Humphries (concussion), cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (knee), center Ben Jones (knee), and left guard Rodger Saffold (ankle). Humphries and Jackson didn’t play in the Titans’ loss to Indianapolis last Thursday.
Below is Wednesday’s full injury report:
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DE Calais Campbell (calf ), DB Anthony Levine (non-injury), CB Jimmy Smith (ankle), DT Brandon Williams (ankle)
LIMITED: OT Orlando Brown Jr. (non-injury)
FULL: LB L.J. Fort (finger)
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: OLB Jadeveon Clowney (knee), WR Corey Davis (non-injury), WR Adam Humphries (concussion), CB Adoree’ Jackson (knee), CB Chris Jackson (illness), C Ben Jones (knee), DL Larrell Murchison (rib), TE MyCole Pruitt (knee), G Rodger Saffold (ankle)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: OT Dennis Kelly (knee)
FULL PARTICIPATION: RB Senorise Perry (knee)