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Ravens' future bright with young offensive linemen

Ravens' future bright with young offensive linemen
Ravens rookie left tackle James Hurst. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun)

When Ravens guard Marshal Yanda stepped to the podium Wednesday, he looked as uncomfortable as a construction worker wearing a tailored suit. The forum is usually reserved for the stars.

The only time reporters typically want to speak with offensive linemen is when things are going bad, like last season when the Ravens had one of the worse running games in the NFL.

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Times have changed. The Ravens are ranked No. 9 in rushing yards per game, tied for 12th in passing and ranked No. 8 in total offense.

"I think we are just taking it one day at a time, and we're growing," Yanda said. "Obviously, we've had some new guys in there with injuries, and the [young] guys [guard John Urschel] and [tackle James Hurst] have stepped up and played well. And that's a credit to those guys and a credit to the team.

"It's everybody. It's not just us. It's the backs, it's [quarterback Joe Flacco], it's the tight ends, it's [offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak] — it's everybody. We've had a couple of hiccups, but we're just trying to continue to be consistent and get after them."

Yanda, in his eighth season, has always been quiet, but he also understands that there are 10 regular-season games remaining. Despite injuries to left tackle Eugene Monroe, left guard Kelechi Osemele and having two new starters this season in center Jeremy Zuttah and right tackle Rick Wagner, the Ravens have had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

But let's keep this all in perspective. The Ravens started two rookies last week — Hurst for the third straight game at left tackle, and Urschel at left guard — and they still put up 48 points and 475 yards against the Buccaneers.

Tampa Bay, though, has one of the worst defenses in the league. The Ravens will struggle with some of the stronger defensive lines as the season continues. But if you look beyond the numbers, the most encouraging sign is that the Ravens have some, good solid prospects.

Since 2000, the Ravens have been near .500 in finding quality offensive linemen through the draft. With Hurst, Urschel and Wagner, who is only in his second year, they might have a strong foundation.

"The best thing is the fact that they handled it with such poise — those two young guys," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "They were smart. I don't think there were any assignment errors, very few technique errors. They communicated well with their center. We were on the same page with everything we did. That's pretty unusual for two rookie guys."

The key for this group is communication. A year ago, the offensive staff was in disarray with constant bickering about the scheme.

Enter Kubiak, who gutted the old system and installed his own.

The Ravens now have a downhill running game and both the running backs and offensive linemen have the same breaking points or sight lines. You don't have to be particularly big to play on this offensive line, but you hace to be quick and smart.

Kubiak built offenses in Denver in which the Broncos didn't always have great running backs. The Ravens don't have any, either. They just plug in Justin Forsett, Lorenzo Taliaferro or Bernard Pierce, and never miss a beat.

A year ago, Flacco was sacked 48 times, including 16 after the first six games. He only has been sacked seven times in six games this season, partly because the Ravens are using more three- and five-step drop backs.

Part of the success also has to be attributed to Zuttah, who replaced Gino Gradkowski at center this season.

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"This game is a [heck] of a lot easier to play when you know who to block," former Ravens offensive lineman Wally Williams said. "It is obvious that Gino didn't have complete knowledge of the system because last year these guys didn't know who to block in both the passing and running game. The year before, they had Matt Birk, and didn't have that problem.

"Now with Zuttah, you're seeing more combination blocking, they know who to attack and which guy you blow down the field. After quarterback, the center is the most premier position on offense because he makes the calls. They are playing good, fundamental football, and once everyone knows the system, you can plug in guys and they play with confidence."

Although Osemele missed the win over the Buccaneers with a bruised and hyperextended right knee, he and Yanda have been healthier, for the most part, this year. Last season, Yanda struggled with a shoulder injury for the entire year, and Osemele missed the last nine games with back problems.

Osemele was a limited participant in practice Wednesday and Thursday, and Yanda has been the Ravens' most dominant offensive lineman this year.

Yanda entered this season with a purpose. Most offensive linemen take an occasional play off, especially in practice. But even in training camp, Yanda went hard all the time. He is a brawler in the group, along with Wagner.

Zuttah and Urschel are more finesse players, both exceptionally quick. Both can pull or easily make blocks into the second level to cut off backside linebackers.

"It's kind of cool," said Flacco of the young talent on the offensive line. "It's great to see the depth that we have. We've obviously put in two rookies on the left side, and we haven't really skipped a beat. It's great to see that we can do that and really react to any situation that we need to.

"The way those guys played on Sunday, and the way Hurst has been playing over there for the last couple weeks, has been really impressive, and I think it's going to help us out a lot in the long [run]."

Retaining a strong offensive line is how good teams remain near the top of the league. Teams can have flashy running backs and pretty-boy receivers, but the basics of football remain the same: The game is won in the trenches.

"I thought that they did a very nice job," said Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith of the Ravens' offensive line. "To see a college free agent playing the left tackle position [Hurst], he did an outstanding job. I think that speaks volumes to Ozzie [Newsome] and his staff in terms of putting together a roster. The other guy [Urschel] was a fifth-round pick, and they did a very good job.

"And the offense, obviously, didn't miss a beat with the performance that they had there in Tampa."

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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