Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Ryan Jensen talks about playing at right tackle for the first time this season due to the many injuries on the line. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Just as important as the additions of starting center Jeremy Zuttah and right tackle Rick Wagner to the Ravens' offensive line success in 2014 was the ability of rookie reserves like James Hurst and John Urschel to seamlessly step in and play.
Injuries, though, prevented the Ravens' top backups from playing valuable snaps Saturday night. With the regular season creeping closer, offensive line depth is being put under the type of strain that could cripple it were it not for the extra players afforded by a 90-man training camp roster.
Six offensive linemen didn't suit up for Saturday's 40-17, preseason loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, and three more were injured by the end of the game.
"I don't think I've ever seen where we've been down that many guys," guard Marshal Yanda said Saturday night. "Obviously, injuries are part of it, but we're down right now. A lot of guys."
Such injuries can be spun in a positive light when the top reserves — like Hurst, Urschel, and tackle Jah Reid — who might be forced into the lineup during the regular season are able to benefit from some preseason playing time with the starters they would join at that point.
But if the former and future practice squad players who were instead featured Saturday are thrust into such a prominent role come the regular season, one of the league's top offensive lines from 2014 could struggle.
"I don't know the extent of what everybody got, but I think we've got a mentality that whoever is in there, we've got the same standard for everybody," Zuttah said. "So, no matter who's in there at any time, we all expect the level of play to be at a certain level."
Injuries to guard Kelechi Osemele (Achilles) and Wagner (leg) forced Ryan Jensen and Hurst into their place in the starting lineups. The top reserves on the depth chart at those positions — Reid (back spasms) and Urschel (concussion) didn't dress, either. Add in unspecified injuries that kept out undrafted rookie tackles Darryl Baldwin and Blaine Clausell, and the Ravens were thin at tackle to begin with.
Saturday's loss compounded that. Hurst left the game and was in the NFL's concussion protocol after he and running back Lorenzo Taliaferro made the tackle after quarterback Joe Flacco's second interception of the night. Undrafted rookie De'Ondre Wesley joined the starters at right tackle on the next drive, and left the game with a left leg injury three plays in.
That forced Yanda to finish the series at right tackle, and when he, Zuttah, and left tackle Eugene Monroe left with the starters, just six healthy offensive linemen — and no healthy tackles — remained. Monroe was spotted on the sideline after the third offensive series with ice on his right arm. Jensen, who played every snap of the game, and Marcel Jones, who has practiced all training camp at guard, played tackle the rest of the way.
Undrafted rookie Nick Easton played center, while guards Kaleb Johnson, Robert Myers, and Leon Brown cycled through the two guard spots.
Results were mixed. That line paved the way for 101 yards rushing on 21 carries, a shade under five yards per attempt, and allowed just three sacks. But they were called for nine penalties, some attributable to the communication errors that occur when dealing with new positions.
"It's a whole different set of calls, things like that, so it makes it difficult," quarterback Matt Schaub said. "But, in the same hand, that's what happens in the regular season a lot of times. … In the blink of an eye, two can go down and you've got to shuffle things.
"It's a good learning experience for those young guys, but it makes it difficult to function the first time you've got to do that," he said.
Whether any of the third-string players can parlay Saturday's snaps into a meaningful regular season role on a healthy offensive line is unlikely. They might not even be summoned for such serious duty again this preseason.
Reid's return is imminent, while Urschel has been practicing in noncontact drills since Wednesday and could be cleared for contact soon. Hurst got valuable practice time this week and two series Saturday at the unfamiliar position of right tackle, but faces time on the sideline, himself. Only Jensen, who seems to be locked in a battle for one of the final offensive line roster spots with Myers, a fifth-round NFL draft pick this year, truly seemed to boost his stock. He has practiced all training camp at center, impressed at guard, then showed he could handle tackle.
The 2013 sixth-round pick spent last year mostly on the practice squad. He briefly competed for the right tackle spot with Wagner last training camp, but hadn't practiced there this year. He admitted it was "a little nerve-wracking at first."
"Coming from last year where I had a disappointing year on a personal level, coming back this year and working really hard and mastering my craft, I feel like I've had a strong camp and just gotten better every day," Jensen said.
The rest of the young linemen sat around the locker room after the game assessing their play, assuring each other that they'd performed well. At best, they made the Ravens' decisions when rosters contract to 75, then 53 players, more difficult. At worst, they put three quarters of game tape into their CVs to enhance their chances of catching on elsewhere.
"We work hard," Jones said. "We have to be ready when our number is called. I felt like we went out there and we played our hearts out."