New-look O-line running out of time to mesh

With 13 days left until the Ravens take on the Steelers in the regular season opener, Baltimore's offensive line now looks almost entirely different than it has for the vast majority of training camp.

Here's where things stand at this point:

* The new left tackle, Bryant McKinnie, was signed just five days ago. He's had exactly one practice with the team, and with minimal time to learn the playbook and get to know his fellow linemen, he'll be counted on to protect Joe Flacco's blind side from Steelers All-Pro linebacker James Harrison two weeks from now.

* The center, Matt Birk, returned to practice on Saturday for the first time since having knee surgery nearly a month ago.

* The right guard, Marshal Yanda, has missed the last two preseason games with back spasms, and has only had about a week's worth of practice all training camp due to the silly rules that prohibited free agents from practicing with their teams until the new collective bargaining agreement was ratified Aug. 4.

* The right tackle, Michael Oher, was the left tackle as recently as Thursday's game against the Redskins, and will now return to a position he hasn't played since January 2010.

Now, none of that is to say that this offensive line doesn't have the makings of a strong group, when healthy.

Yanda and left guard Ben Grubbs (the lone consistent presence on the line throughout training camp) are borderline Pro Bowl-caliber; Birk is experienced, tough and serves as a mentor to the group; McKinnie is an above-average left tackle when motivated; and Oher will return to right tackle, where he played well his rookie season.

The issue here, other than that whole health thing, is chemistry.You can't just piece an offensive line together and expect it to contain NFL defenses (especially those like Pittsburgh's) in two weeks' time.

Yes, Grubbs, Birk and Yanda have all played alongside each other on the interior of the line before, but Yanda played right tackle all of last year. The rapport among those three needs to be built back up.

Yes, Oher played right tackle two years ago, but as much as he insists that his transition back to the right side will be a piece of cake, you can bet there will be hiccups along the way.

Yes, McKinnie is a nine-year pro who has played in a similar system in the past, but he needs time to learn the Ravens' terminology, audibles and the cadence of his quarterback.

This group will need to maximize every hour possible in the next two weeks to try and get up to speed, including those hours during Thursday's preseason finale against the Falcons.

Traditionally, starters see little - if any - playing time in the fourth preseason game, largely due to the risk of injury. Last year, head coach John Harbaugh elected to sit his entire first-team offense in the Ravens preseason finale against the Rams.

Asked about his strategy for Thursday's game and his take on trying to balance getting his offensive line much-needed reps and avoiding injury, Harbaugh declined to lean in one direction.

"I have both feelings," Harbaugh said. "I'd like to see them play the whole game, but I'd like to see them healthy in the opener as well. There's the dilemma."

To me, it's not much of a dilemma. If the starting five offensive linemen are healthy enough to play, they have to suit up and get, at the very least, a few series together as a unit.

Birk and Yanda might be less of a concern because of their injury issues, experience and comfort level with each other, but McKinnie and Oher certainly need to be out there to get acclimated to their surroundings, and it would help to have Grubbs see some in-game action next to his new left tackle.

With the season opener looming, the Ravens are running out of time to get this group all on the same page. The talent is there. We'll have to see if the chemistry is, as well.

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