Ravens rookie James Hurst makes first start, offensive line doesn't miss a beat

  • Ravens left tackle James Hurst blocks in the first quarter against the Carolina Panthers at M&T Bank Stadium.
Ravens left tackle James Hurst blocks in the first quarter against… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
September 28, 2014|By Jon Meoli | The Baltimore Sun

Led by guards Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda and featuring undrafted rookie James Hurst at left tackle, the Ravens' offensive line held its opponent without a sack for the third straight game and paved the way for another strong performance by the team's running backs.

The five-man line, which features only Yanda in the same role as he played last year, has become a strength for the team after spending 2013 as the offense's scapegoat.

"It's been really good," quarterback Joe Flacco said after Sunday's 38-10 win over the Carolina Panthers. "We get the ball out, and those guys have been holding up big time when we do the play action, when teams come after us, and when we're dealing with really good defensive lines.

"I think we've got a lot of good guys up front, and they're communicating very well and they're being very physical."

That physicality starts inside with Osemele at left guard, center Jeremy Zuttah, and Yanda at right guard. The Ravens had run for nearly 4.5 yards per carry between the guards in the first three games (34 carries for 151 yards), and again found success Sunday creating holes up the middle for shifty back Justin Forsett and the powerful rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro.

Osemele said the key has been Zuttah. Zuttah deflects credit to the guards.

"They're probably the best set of guards in the league right now," Zuttah said. "Marshal has been to a lot of Pro Bowls, and K.O. is probably the most talented dude, at least on the interior, but maybe all five [positions]."

On the outside, the Ravens got another strong performance from one tackle who entered the season as a question mark and another who had previously been an afterthought.

The Panthers came to Baltimore with eight sacks in three games. Panthers coach Ron Rivera called the pass rush non-existent "to a degree" after they hit Flacco just twice.

Flacco hasn't been sacked since the final offensive play of the Week 1 loss to Cincinnati, when he held the ball too long on fourth down and took a coverage sack. Ravens coach John Harbaugh and the linemen praised how quickly Flacco released the ball under pressure Sunday.

"We've got a little [no-sack] streak going here," Harbaugh said. "We'll keep that going, but not just the offensive line. [It's] the fact that our receivers and our quarterback, in the face of heavy pressure, especially on third down, got the ball out."

Hurst, playing in place of the injured Eugene Monroe, started for four years at North Carolina and could have been drafted as high as the second round had he not broken his leg in his final college game last December. He earned good reviews for his play against the Panthers.

"I didn't notice him, so that must be a good thing," Harbaugh said. "I can't wait to see it on tape, but it seemed like he played well."

Zuttah and Osemele had no apprehension with the rookie protecting Flacco's blindside.

"From camp — from spring even — he's shown that he belongs in this league, and we kind of knew that," Zuttah said.

"He did great," Osemele said. "He's been preparing all year. He was ready, so I wasn't worried at all."

Hurst said the veterans helped calm him before the game, and he was proud to help continue their early season success.

"That was my goal — I didn't want to drop the ball," Hurst said. "I didn't want anything to change with how those guys have been playing."

On the right side of the line, Rick Wagner again proved to be a stout run blocker, especially in the red zone.

He and rookie tight end Crockett Gillmore sealed off a lane on Forsett's 11-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, the third time the Ravens have scored running behind Wagner this year.

"We did a good job across the board, I think, blocking as a group," Harbaugh said. "The unit has played exceptionally well. We have to keep building, but it's nice to have some depth in there."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

twitter.com/JonMeoli

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