In the Trenches: Ravens

DT Daniel Muir (AP/Michael Conroy)

Robert Mathis faces a rookie that's selling tickets in both football stadiums and movie theatres across the country, and Daniel Muir gets his biggest challenge yet against one of the game's top guards. Greg Talmage breaks down two of the battles facing the Colts' defense along the line of scrimmage inside.

LE Robert Mathis vs. RT Michael Oher (all situations):

If you watch football or anything sports-related you've seen previews for the upcoming movie "The Blind Side". That film is a true story based on Michael Oher's life. It first was the subject of Michael Lewis' 2006 book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game and now Hollywood has turned it into a major motion picture starring Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw.

(Note: Lewis' book is a fascinating read and Oher's story of survival and perseverance is one that will definitely inspire. If you have time I recommend at least the adapted version that appeared in the New York Times Magazine shortly before the book's 2006 release.)

Oher's turbulent life took on a new chapter in April of this year when the Baltimore Ravens selected him with the 23rd overall pick in the NFL draft. Coming into the draft, most draft analysts ranked Oher has the third-best tackle available in the 2009 draft (behind Jason Smith and Eugene Monroe).

Mathis is on a hot streak and gets his first crack at Oher Sunday
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images's Chris Steuber wrote: "Oher is a dominant tackle who is a tremendous athlete presented in a massive frame. He's an outstanding pass protector who blocks with a wide base, has quick feet and easily knocks the opposition off their rush. He gets off the line well and is able to push defenders back in run situations." Another, draft expert, Ricky Dimon, broke Oher down like this: "NFL scouts love how Oher is able to control the line of scrimmage with his hulking physical frame and excellent footwork. Such a lethal combination makes it almost impossible for defensive linemen to get around his pass protection. Oher's quick feet also make him a strong run blocker, as he is able to get to linebackers and neutralize their pursuit of the ball. He ran a 5.34 in the 40-yard-dash at the Combine but knocked it down to 5.08 at Mississippi's pro day."

In college, Oher played right guard as a true freshman in 2005 then moved to left tackle the following season and stayed there. While left tackle might be where Oher eventually ends up, right now he is at right tackle. So how has Oher handled the jump from Ole Miss to Baltimore?

Oher has quickly put together a very solid rookie season, arguably the most consistent of all offensive tackles drafted. He has been a monster run blocker. As fellow ColtPower analyst Brad Keller points out, "Running to the right behind — and around — rookie Michael Oher, Baltimore has been considerably more effective, averaging 5.82 yards per carry over right tackle." At 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds with a 5.08 time in the 40, it's easier to see how the kid could be a mauler.

In pass protection, the folks over at Ravens 24x7 write: "Oher is on the verge of becoming an anchor on the right side. There have been times when he has struggled with his blitz recognition and technique, but overall, he has held up well as a pass blocker."

One part of those listed problems is that Oher will have trouble with good counter moves. For example, a few weeks back Denver Broncos DE Elvis Dumervil was able to get into Oher with some solid outside-in counters. Still Oher and Gaither were able to hold Dumervil without a sack.

This week, the challenge facing Oher is Colts defensive end Robert Mathis. Mathis is coming off a very impressive performance last week against New England. In that game, he had eight total tackles, two sacks, one tackle for loss, three quarterback hurries, one pass deflected and one forced fumble. The multi-sack game was the 15th of his career.

Mathis is playing at an exceedingly high level with 8.5 sacks in nine games and at least a half-sack or more in four straight. Look for Baltimore to attempt to wear down Mathis by running right at him and letting Oher use his near 70-pound weight advantage and massive frame. Oher's frame and footwork can make it hard to beat the kid on the outside, so look for Mathis to try some outside-in counters or spin to the inside.

When Oher has been beaten or pushed back, it has actually been the bull rush that has caused Oher some leverage problems. Players with Oher's size and frame can have problems getting in position and properly balanced. Just one little slip or bad move will get them out of position quickly.

Like New England did, I expect Baltimore to focus on slowing down Dwight Freeney in his matchup against LT Jared Gaither. That should again leave plenty of one-on-one matchups between Mathis and Oher.

RDT Daniel Muir vs. LG Ben Grubbs (running situations):

Ravens left guard Ben Grubbs is one of the best young guards in the NFL today. Just recently, Pro Football Weekly named Grubbs to their Midseason All-Pro Team. "A first-rounder in 2007, the powerful, athletic Grubbs is a rising star on a line that has paved the way for the Ravens' much-improved offense," PFW said of Grubbs.

Grubbs really started to come into his own last season, his second in the league. Grubbs combines a lethal combination of power and athleticism. He was the strength to move bigger defensive tackles off the ball in one-on-one situations. He uses his heavy hands well and will stun an opponent quickly. He has the speed and skill to get to the second level with a pull or combo block.

He will struggle at times in one-on-one situations against elite defensive tackles. In their game against Minnesota earlier in the season, Grubbs were surrendered 1.5 hurries and a sack to Vikings DT Kevin Williams. Williams is one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league. So you can't fault Grubbs for losing some battles against him. A lot of guards and centers do and will continue to.

This week, I'm eager to see how Daniel Muir and his continued development do against an elite, upcoming interior offensive lineman like Grubbs. The book on Muir is that he's quick but lacks strength and recognition skills. He's not going to be able to constantly win a matchup against a player like Grubbs without putting more of a complete package together.

I think ColtPower analyst Brad Keller hits it square on the head when he says expect the Ravens to target Muir and Antonio Johnson. Keller writes: "They [Baltimore] have averaged 4.47 yards per carry up the middle and the Colts have allowed an average of 4.4 yards per carry in that area, so it is safe to assume that the Ravens will play to their strengths, stay committed to the run, and attempt to wear down Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir with their three bruising interior linemen and triumvirate of talented tailbacks."

The Colts will rotate defensive linemen, especially tackles, in an effort to keep players fresh and avoid the possibility of anyone getting too worn down. But can they afford to? Brad Keller made an interesting statistical point along those lines in his "What We Learned" column following the Patriots-Colts game. Keller wrote: "One of the interesting subplots from last night's game is that New England actually had 113 yards rushing and averaged four yards a carry. When Muir and Johnson were in the line-up — in the first and fourth quarters they played the inside positions almost exclusively — the Patriots had trouble moving the ball on the ground. When Eric Foster, Raheem Brock, or Fili Moala were patrolling the middle, Kevin Faulk and Laurence Maroney got yards in bunches."

Clearly, it's Muir and Johnson that are the most effective in stopping the run. It's time for the others in the rotation to start stepping up.

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