It was the simple things that James Hurst missed most. His teammates. Run blocking. Wearing closed-toe shoes.
Of all the nuisances the Ravens’ season-opening starter at right tackle expected from a back injury that sidelined him at practice for nearly six weeks, footwear was probably not one of them. It wasn’t that he was physically incapable of lacing up his sneakers before heading to team headquarters. It was that sliding into flip-flops was so much easier than testing a sensitive spinal cord.
“But now I can do that pretty safely,” he joked before practice Wednesday. “I don't have to wear sandals to the building in 30-degree weather.”
Hurst did not expect to enter Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs having missed half of the season. Coach John Harbaugh said late last month that the Ravens (7-5) expected him to miss only a couple of weeks with a “disk issue.” Then Hurst’s nerve root, one of two bundles of nerve fibers from the spinal cord that convey sensations to the central nervous system, started to affect feeling in his calf. That meant another few weeks out.
After nearly a month and a half off, Hurst was a limited participant in all three Ravens practices last week and inactive for his sixth straight game. He said Wednesday that he expected to be a full participant in all three practices this week, but was again limited Wednesday and Thursday.
His possible return to action Sunday is knee-deep in irony. The Ravens have perhaps never needed him more along the line. They have perhaps never needed him less at his old line posting. And his recovery is all the more important only because of another lineman’s pain.
Left guard Alex Lewis, who did not finish the Ravens’ win Sunday over the Atlanta Falcons because of an ailing shoulder, missed practice Wednesday and Thursday with the same injury. The Ravens could call on rookie Bradley Bozeman, who relieved Lewis in Atlanta.
Or they could turn to last year’s starting left guard, Hurst — if his health allows.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how much he can do and, as the week progresses, am kind of hopeful that this is the week for him” to be healthy enough to play, Harbaugh said Wednesday. “We’ll see how that goes.”
The Ravens’ season so far has been bookended by periods of stability along the offensive line, with jumbled stretches sandwiched in between. Over the first six weeks, they rolled out their expected starting five: left tackle Ronnie Stanley, Lewis, center Matt Skura, right guard Marshal Yanda and Hurst.
Over their next three games, the Ravens’ starting offensive line was in flux, never the same from one Sunday to the next. Bozeman started a game at left guard. So did Hroniss Grasu. Rookie Orlando Brown Jr. took over for Hurst at right tackle. Jermaine Eluemunor’s promotion from practice squad netted him a start at left tackle.
After the Ravens’ bye in Week 10, they returned with a new starting quarterback, Lamar Jackson, and yet another new line in front of him: Stanley, Lewis, Skura, Yanda and Brown. Almost overnight, the team’s struggles running the ball evaporated as a path to the playoffs started to materialize. Lewis only wished that he could’ve been a part of it.
“It's been really tough,” Hurst said. “It's been miserable, actually, just sitting out and watching the guys. But obviously, we’ve got a little momentum right now, so excited to see that for the guys, excited to come back amidst that, hopefully bring some more energy, bring some life to the guys and just continue the run that we're having.”
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Hurst’s game readiness could be a mystery until kickoff Sunday. He said he feels “fresh” after his extended layoff, but acknowledged that he couldn’t lift weights while his back was inflamed.
Also unknown is where he’d fit into the Ravens’ line puzzle. Teammates and coaches have praised Brown’s development, and Harbaugh said last month that the 2018 third-round draft pick could play himself into a locked-down starting role by season’s end. Given Hurst’s flexibility along the line and experience at guard, he’s more likely to cede right tackle to Brown than vice versa.
“He's somebody that's helped me be successful in this league, and he's a pro's pro, so being out there, having somebody, another guy, another leader, I guess, to be behind, I look forward to it,” Brown said Wednesday. “I don't know where's about to play or any of that, but having him out there, I look forward to it.”
As the Ravens worry over the health of their secondary just days from a matchup against quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ top-scoring offense, the capability of their offensive line is just as crucial.
The Ravens’ pass defense, when fully operational, against Kansas City’s passing attack is a matchup of strength against strength. On offense, the Ravens have rushed for 716 yards over their past three games while averaging nearly 5 yards per carry; the Chiefs (10-2) allow over 5 yards per carry, tied for worst in the NFL. That’s strength against weakness.
Hurst hopes he can help. Near-freezing temperatures will welcome the Ravens to Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, but he’s done wearing sandals in wintertime weather. The Ravens now hope Hurst can play in it, too.
“Hopefully, if everything goes well,” Hurst said, “then, well, we can address that on Sunday and help the team out.”