January 10, 2010
It's not often that a team can overhaul an entire positional unit in one fell swoop -- if you have a bad offensive or defensive line, a sub-par linebacker corps or secondary, it generally takes years, and different methods, to turn that around. There are exceptions, and the Baltimore Ravens' ability to reinforce their offensive line and overall blocking concepts in a single draft -- their 2007 edition -- was perfectly displayed on the three-yard touchdown by Willis McGahee(notes) with 10:32 left in the Ravens' 33-14 wild-card victory over the New England Patriots.
When you watch the play above, pay special attention to the blocking on the left side. Auburn left guard Ben Grubbs(notes), whose straight-ahead protection typifies his toughness, was Baltimore's first selection in that draft with the 29th overall pick. Right guard Marshal Yanda(notes) (Iowa), who pulled left to reinforce the lane McGahee ran though, was taken in the third round. Fullback Le'Ron McClain(notes) (Alabama), who sealed the left edge on the play and has become recognized as one of the best blocking fullbacks in the game, was taken in the fourth round. Finally, the Ravens took left tackle Jared Gaither(notes) from Maryland in the supplemental draft on July 12 of that year after Gaither was ruled academically ineligible. Gaither has eased the line's transition after the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer Jonathan Ogden(notes).
How good have these guys been? In 2006, the Ravens ranked second-to-last in the NFL in yards per carry at 3.4 -- only the Arizona Cardinals were worse. These players have matured, and they got help with the additions of veteran center Matt Birk(notes) and dominant rookie right tackle Michael Oher(notes). In the 2009 regular season, the Ravens averaged 4.7 yards per carry; only the Titans, Cowboys and Panthers were better. They Ravens tied for the NFL lead in rushing touchdowns with 22, and they added four more against the Patriots on Sunday.
That stability upfront has allowed this Baltimore team to redefine its offense in a preferred power running style, which has given maximum value out of running backs Ray Rice(notes) and Willis McGahee, and allowed second-year quarterback Joe Flacco(notes) to grow into his role without doing too much. The 234 yards on 52 attempts the Ravens put up against the Patriots was just the latest in a long line of reasons that Baltimore's 2007 draft set the franchise up for future greatness from top to bottom.
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