Wednesday, June 17, 2009

On The Ground: Bruce Raffel on the Ravens' tackles

Time to continue my series of supporting interviews for this piece I wrote for The Good Point on the importance of the left tackle. Today's interview subject is Bruce Raffel, editor of the excellent Ravens' blog Baltimore Beatdown. The Ravens' tackle situation is quite an interesting one; they used the first draft pick in their history in Baltimore on Jonathan Ogden, who turned out to be a great franchise LT. Recently, they brought in Jared Gaither to replace Ogden after his retirement. This year, they drafted possibly the most famous left tackle out there, Michael Oher of The Blind Side fame, 23rd overall. Raffel has some very interesting things to say about the Ravens' moves at tackle over the years, so read on!

Andrew Bucholtz: How important do you consider the left tackle position, especially compared to the other positions on the offensive line? How important is a good left tackle to a team's overall success?

Bruce Raffel: While the center position is sort of the "quarterback" of the o-line, the left tackle s the most important piece, as they protect (usually, unless QB is lefthanded) the QB's blind side. Most great pass rushers come from the left side and therefore the best offensive lineman usually plays there. In addition to pass protection, the LT must open gaping holes for the running game as well, which of course, makes the passing game even more successful.

A.B.: What are the most important attributes of a good left tackle?

B.R.: There aren't too many LT's I can think of that don't have that massive size to go along with their incredible athleticism for such big men. Due to the speed rushers of today, the LT must have quick feet to keep up with the defense, but also have the bulk to ward off the bull rush and long yet strong arms to fend off the slap, swim and spin moves of the elite DE's in the league.

A.B.: In your mind, is there a significant difference in the skills required to play left tackle and right tackle?

B.R.: It seems that most teams put their best pass protector on the QB's blind side, which as noted earlier is usually the left tackle position. Both tackles need the size and bulk, but still must have the quick feet to be successful. However, since the best ones play LT, the money for that position is much greater than the right side. Overal, the skill set is similar, but the QB can have a better chance of avoiding a pass rusher from the right side than he can from the left.

A.B.: Obviously, Jonathan Ogden had a tremendous career with the Ravens. When he was drafted fourth overall in 1996, what did you think of the pick? Did you think it was worthwhile picking a tackle so high at the time?

Ogden was the premier LT coming out of UCLA in that draft year, and when trying to build a team for the future, taking the guy who will be protecting your QB's blind side for the next 10-12 years or so is the best place to start (which is why the Detroit Lions should have done the same thing this year rather than take a QB with the first pick). Besides, when you look at the entire career of JO, as he is called here in Baltimore, it looks like we did the right thing, eh?

A.B.: What do you think was the key to Ogden's success in the NFL: physical attributes, game smarts or a combination of the two?

B.R.: JO was a very bright young man when drafted and then became an even smarter player as he matured, both emotionally as well as physically. He watched tape on his opponents and knew their signature moves and was rarely beaten by the same guy more than once. He was also a huge physical specimen who took care of his body which permitted him to enjoy a long healthy career, at least until towards the end of all the abuse he lasted through against the best pass rushers in the league.

A.B.: When Ogden retired in 2008, were you nervous about who the Ravens would replace him with?

B.R: Ravens fans always knew that time was coming, especially towards the end. However, when we grabbed former Maryland Terrapin LT Jared Gaither with the 5th pick in the Supplemental Draft, every Ravens fan knew we had a guy that would have gone in the top part of the first round if he stayed only one more year in college. Having a year to learn from JO was the best thing that could have happened to Gaither, as he had an on the field coach in Ogden.

A.B.: How do you think Jared Gaither has done so far? Do you see him as a long-term solution at left tackle?

B.R.: Absolutely, Gaither is fast on his way to becoming an All Pro at LT. He is a massive human being at 6'9" and 334 pounds, but moves around pretty good for such a behemoth. He already had a great season last year and will only get better. Joe Flacco has a lot of confidence that his back is covered with Gaither entrenched at LT.

A.B.: The Ravens took another tackle high in the draft this year with the first-round selection of Michael Oher. What did you think of the move? Was it made because he was the best player available at that slot, or because the team needed another strong tackle?

B.R.: Most Ravens fans, including me, were looking for a wide receiver with the first round pick. When I heard that we made the trade to move up in the round, I was sure it was to grab either a WR or one of the USC LBs, such as Rey Maualuga, who I thought would be a great transition to Ray Lewis at MLB. However, when they took Michael Oher and his life story came out, it was obvious that he fit the mold of a typical Raven player. Finally when RT Willie Anderson announced his retirement, opening the door for Oher to start at RT right away, it became apparent that this is why our GM, Ozzie Newsome is well known as the "Wizard of Oz."

A.B.: Oher's quite likely one of the most well-known linemen in the NFL already thanks to Michael Lewis' book on him, despite him not playing a down yet. Do you think he'll be able to handle that pressure?

B.R.: The pressure off the field living up to the personal hype is nothing compared to learning the pro game as a starter. The Ravens are keeping him at right tackle as they have a great one in the making already at left tackle. However, Oher was a LT in college and could easily move over if there was an injury, etc. Learning at RT will be a challenge, but I was at Ravens' training camp this past week and while Oher is 6'4" and 310 pounds, there is not an ounce of belly fat on the guy, which is rare for an OT.

A.B.: A lot of the talk so far seems to have Oher as the Ravens' starting right tackle for this coming season. Do you think he'll be able to handle the shift from playing left tackle in college? Do you see him as a LT or a RT long term?

B.R.: If Jared Gaither stays healthy and continues his rapid growth as a fixture at LT, then Michael Oher will become one of the best RT's in the game very quickly. If something happens with Gaither, then Oher would seamlessly slide over to his natural position. Although a LT in college, it will actually be easier to acclimate himself to the speed and challenges of the pro game by learning right off the bat from the RT position, which is far less pressure.

A.B.: How much emphasis do the Ravens as an organization place on the offensive line in general and the left tackle in particular? If you were running the team, how much emphasis would you place on the offensive line positions?

B.R.: Although so many Ravens fans want to see this team get an elite wide receiver and air the ball out, we are not that type of team. We are a defensive-minded team, that earns its offensive success on the ground. Therefore, the O-line's abilities to open holes for the running game will set up the simple passing attack that does not have to be really good, just good enough. And we all know the run game starts with the LT's ability to collapse the line to get the RBs space to run off tackle, or even between them.

Thanks to Bruce for taking the time to answer my questions! Check out his website here!

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