Ravens offensive line on the rise with Ryan Jensen and James Hurst in the middle

Frivolity rapidly seized the Ravens locker room Wednesday as players watched reporters crowd around center Ryan Jensen.

“Ooh, 94 percent grade on Pro Football Focus,” safety Tony Jefferson sang.

“He plays like his hair is on fire,” called tackle Austin Howard, alluding to the wild mass of red curls atop Jensen’s head.

There was no bite to their taunts, only amusement that after four years of mostly anonymous work as a backup guard, the feisty Jensen has finally earned his moment in the NFL spotlight.

Fans spent much of training camp in a panic over the Ravens offensive line. John Urschel, who was supposed to compete with Jensen for the starting center job, retired abruptly. Then starting guard Alex Lewis went down with a season-ending injury.

General manager Ozzie Newsome responded by briefly bringing back last year’s center, Jeremy Zuttah, and acquiring veterans Tony Bergstrom and Luke Bowanko. So he seemed to be grasping for answers as well. The news only got worse when the team’s best lineman, Marshal Yanda, fractured his ankle in Week 2.

But after an excellent performance in Sunday’s 30-17 victory over the Oakland Raiders, the line grades as the fourth best in the league, according to the aforementioned Pro Football Focus. And two of the players at the center of that surprising performance are not fresh faces but veteran Ravens who’ve generally been overlooked and/or maligned during their tenures in Baltimore.

There’s Jensen, who brings a needed dose of surliness to the group. And beside him, filling in for Lewis at left guard, is James Hurst — long a punching bag for Ravens fans who felt he was an inadequate fill-in at left tackle.

Jensen, 26, is bound to receive more attention and not just because Pro Football Focus graded him as the best center in the league in Week 5. From his flaming hair to the Viking warrior tattoo on his left biceps to his storied history of training camp brawls, he’s a natural character. Teammates can’t help but grin when they talk about him.

“He is a savage,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said.

“In camp, he gets a little feisty; he’ll throw a helmet here and there,” linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “He’s not going to let anyone [bully] him. He’s always going to get the better end of it. Playing against him in practice, that keeps you aware. Even though you think he’s being a butthole, he’s actually making you better, because you’re protecting yourself.”

Asked his reaction to a teammate calling him a butthole, Jensen said, “I take that as a compliment.”

The sweet-tempered Hurst, 25, is unlikely to prompt a similar comment. He’s spent far more time in the spotlight than Jensen, because he started 16 games at tackle over his first three seasons. As much as he was derided for his performance there, coaches learned to value his versatility. That appreciation has only deepened this year given his performance at guard.

“It is hard to play any specific spot on the offensive line, but to be able to play all five, or at least four, [is very special],” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He is just invaluable that way.”

Hurst prides himself on handling any job that’s thrown his way.

“The situations that have happened with injury have been pretty unpredictable, but that’s part of it,” he said. “You have to be next man up. I know what a cliché that is, but truly, when a guy goes down, you’ve got to go in, and you can’t be a liability. The coaches need to know they can keep running their game plan.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to flip sides or move from tackle to the more cramped environs at guard.

“Your feet are different — the whole balance aspect and the way your muscle groups are working together, it’s a learning process,” Hurst said. “You’ve got to work extra and get the muscle memory going. It is different. It’s a tough thing to do.”

Jensen is also thriving at a position he’d never played in the NFL outside of practice.

He grew up playing center, so it wasn’t as if snapping the ball was alien to him. But he was a star tackle in college at Colorado State-Pueblo, and he mostly worked at guard during his first four seasons with the Ravens.

His future appeared cloudy when he was a healthy scratch for the last nine games of 2016. But Jensen impressed coaches when he showed up for offseason workouts at a fit, powerful 320 pounds, and he quickly took the lead in the center competition with Urschel.

Playing center requires an entirely different set of motions than the other line positions, and it also entails more responsibility for calling out blocking adjustments. It takes years of practice for the job to feel like second nature.

“Repetition is a big part of that,” Harbaugh said. “It is complicated. It is probably the second-most complicated position on the offense, next to the quarterback.”

Jensen said he needed two years to feel entirely comfortable playing with his hand on the ball again after he hadn’t done it since high school.

Centers are often smaller than their line mates and celebrated for their brainpower as much as their physical attributes. But Jensen plays just as nastily as he did at guard, and teammates and coaches love him for it.

“He is definitely an old-school, mauler tough guy,” Suggs said appreciatively. “He likes to rumble, likes to fight.”

Hurst joked that he pays careful attention to which opposing player Jensen is fighting in case he has to block the angry guy on the next play.

“We give him a hard time about it,” Hurst said. “But it’s great. He’s setting the tone, and that’s just who he is. He’s going to block until the whistle blows. It’s fun to see and fun to be a part of it.”

Ever since Jensen arrived as a sixth-round draft pick in 2013, the joke has been that when a fight breaks out during training camp, you look for the red curls at the heart of the melee.

Jensen can’t even count how many brawls he’s been in since he started playing football at age 7. But he said he’s worked to control his short temper.

“I think it is just the red hair in me,” he said. “It is kind of ornery.”

With Jensen and Hurst ensconced in the middle and Howard and Ronnie Stanley playing well at tackle, the Ravens feel they have a configuration to roll with for the rest of the season. The lineup finally clicked in Oakland.

“We came off two weeks where we didn’t play up to par, so we put a little extra on ourselves. We felt we were letting the team down with our performance,” Hurst said. “We needed to step up, and we did.”

The linemen took particular pride in a run-heavy fourth-quarter drive that lasted more than six minutes and essentially clinched victory.

The loss of Yanda, a role model to all the younger linemen in the organization, still stings. There is no next man up in his case, and the other veterans have tried to mitigate his absence by committee.

It’s a goal that feels more attainable now than it did a few weeks ago.

“We want to be counted on at important times,” Hurst said. “Put it on our backs and let us roll.”

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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