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Ravens' reworked offensive line thriving during postseason run

Matt Birk (Nick Waas/AP) Center Matt Birk anchors the Ravens' restructured offensive line. (Nick Waas/AP)

NEW ORLEANS -- Sure, the Baltimore Ravens changed offensive coordinators with just weeks left in the regular season -- a successful decision that, deservingly, has earned coach John Harbaugh a great deal of praise.

That move was nothing, though, compared to what went on along the Ravens' offensive line between Week 17 of the regular season and the postseason's Wild-Card round.

In the Ravens' regular-season finale against the Bengals, they lined up with Michael Oher at left tackle, Jah Reid at left guard, Matt Birk at center, Bobbie Williams at right guard and Kelechi Osemele at right tackle. Seven days later, when the Indianapolis Colts visited Baltimore for a playoff showdown, the only Ravens lineman back in the same spot was Birk.

Reid suffered a season-ending injury in that Week 17 loss to Cincinnati, forcing Baltimore to go back to the drawing board.

The coaching staff came up with this: Marshall Yanda, returning from an injury of his own, reclaimed his starting right guard spot; Osemele slid to left guard; and Oher shifted to right tackle, allowing Bryant McKinnie to start on the left side.

"It was a gamble," said Yanda of the pre-playoff reshuffling. "But obviously, Jah got hurt, so we knew there had to be some switch that had to be made.

"Those two guys that have had to switch positions [Osemele and Oher] have done great jobs, they've been lights out -- otherwise, we probably wouldn't be in the Super Bowl."

Oher has bounced back and forth between left and right tackle during his NFL career, so his migration was of minimal concern for the Ravens. Osemele, on the other hand, had seen time at left guard only during the preseason and started as a tackle at Iowa State.

All the Ravens asked him to do was pick up a relatively new position in time for a playoff run.

"If I had done that as a rookie, it would've been really tough," Yanda said. "To switch like that and back and still play at a high level is impressive."

"It was something totally new and different," said Birk, the anchor of Baltimore's line, "but I think he's handled it great."

With Osemele on the interior and a McKinnie/Oher combination at tackle, the Ravens' offense found a groove. Baltimore has averaged 424.7 yards of offense in its three playoff games, up from 352.5 during the regular season.

Joe Flacco credited that uptick in production with the steady play in front of him.

“That’s nice of Joe to say, but we just try to do our job and give Joe and ... all our guys, all our playmakers, chances to make plays," Birk said. "That’s our job: to do our job so that those guys can do the special things that they can do.”

At least two of those "playmakers" reside in the Baltimore backfield: running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. The latter topped 100 yards rushing in Baltimore's win over the Colts, then Rice ripped off 131 at Denver the next week.

A run game is nothing new in Baltimore, of course -- Rice has been a fixture in the offense for five seasons now. Combined with a suddenly-lethal passing attack, however, the Rice/Pierce combo has Baltimore clicking on all cylinders heading into Sunday.

"I’m not taking anything away from our defense, but we’ve been lighting it up offensively for the last couple of weeks," Rice said. "That’s one thing that feels good about our team now is that we’re sound in all three stages.

"We always felt like we had things to work on, but we’re good on special teams, we’re good on offense, and we’re good on defense. And that’s what got us here."

Statistically, the Ravens have not yet run into many defenses that can compare with San Francisco's. The 49ers finished second in points allowed, behind Seattle, and third in yardage.

Their aggressive linebackers will test that mix-and-match Baltimore line -- and could force Rice and Pierce to stay home as blockers, if the front five falter.

"They're not just going to let us sit back there and throw the ball," said Yanda, who will keep himself for most of Sunday blocking either Ray McDonald or Justin Smith. "They're a good defense, that's what a good defense does."

The Ravens have a good offense line, too -- one playing better now than it has arguably all year. And that's pretty amazing, considering it took Baltimore until the postseason to put the pieces together.

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