'Young guns' finding home upfront

OWINGS MILLS -- Toward the end of the Baltimore Ravens' victory Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers after a long, mostly unproductive day grappling with offensive guard Ben Grubbs, veteran defensive tackle Bryant Young imparted a rare compliment to the rookie first-round draft pick.

It's not often that a 35-year-old defensive lineman so grizzled he was actually part of the 49ers' last Super Bowl championship acknowledges being impressed by a fresh-faced 23-year-old. "He was real classy," Grubbs recounted. "At the end of the game, he said, 'Hey, young cat, you're going to be all right.' I really appreciated that."

That feedback has mirrored the impression Grubbs has made on coaches and teammates as part of a promising trio of rookie offensive linemen with Grubbs lining up next to right tackle Marshal Yanda, 23, and former University of Maryland standout Jared Gaither, 21, who's preparing for his first NFL start Sunday against the St. Louis Rams due to Adam Terry's sprained left ankle.

Now, the Ravens currently have the youngest offensive line in the NFL with an average age of 23.5 years.

"I tell them, 'This is the future out here,'" running back Willis McGahee said. "If something bad happens, just keep going. Don't even worry about it."

Between the three rookies, left guard Jason Brown, 24, and center Chris Chester, 24, filling in for Mike Flynn because of a sprained knee, Baltimore has a collective 31 starts upfront.

Yet, the Ravens didn't allow a sack against the 49ers despite an aggressive scheme engineered by former Baltimore defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. If there were any signs of nerves, they were practically undetectable even though Grubbs was flagged once for holding and Gaither committed a false-start penalty.

"You have to start somewhere, and that's what these guys are doing," quarterback Steve McNair said. "They know what they have to do. If I worry about who's protecting me right now, it's going to take me out of my game. I've got confidence in these guys."

When McNair stepped into the huddle as Terry and Flynn were helped off the field with injuries during a second-quarter drive, he was pleased by what he didn't witness: fear.

McNair, 35, sensed an eagerness to prove themselves from players who have a combined eight years experience, none of whom was even enrolled in high school when he launched his NFL career 13 years ago.

"I felt like I was alone out there, so it was a bit awkward," McNair said. "I saw a lot of sparks in those guys' eyes when they came out there. I didn't see any scared traces in their bodies."

After practice Wednesday afternoon, all the linemen kept working with offensive line coach Chris Foerster and assistant offensive line coach Greg Roman on extra drills as their teammates trudged into the locker room.

The youth movement has been born out of necessity, not choice.

With All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden sidelined for the past four games with a lingering turf toe injury, Terry had to move over to the left side and Yanda, a third-round pick from Iowa, has started four of the past five games. Grubbs overtook Chester to become the new starter at right guard heading into the 49ers game.

Despite the lack of experience, the Ravens have only allowed six sacks.

"I just tell them to go out there and fight," Ogden said. "The NFL is a lot about assignment, alignment and technique, but, at the end of the day, you've got to go out there and fight and scrap out there. That's why they're doing a good job.

"They're battling hard and I'm proud of the way they're going out there and performing. I always say, 'Listen, no matter what you do, you do it full speed.' They've been listening."

Added linebacker Bart Scott: "I've been kind of singing their praises. You've got a lot of confidence when they're proving themselves, kind of like baptism by fire."

Meanwhile, Gaither, who was drafted by Baltimore this summer in the supplemental draft after being declared academically ineligible to play for the Terrapins, is one of the league's youngest players.

The athletically-gifted 6-foot-9, 350-pound Greenbelt native hasn't had time to ponder how difficult a transition he's making.

"You don't want to think too much, that kind of sets you back," Gaither said. "I couldn't wait until the first play was called. I don't know if I was actually nervous or more just ready for that first play, and I was ready.

"It was a test, really, a test to see if I'm ready enough. I did pretty well. I was thrown out there in an unexpected moment and I stepped up to the occasion. I'm hard on myself if anything goes wrong."

Brown has the most experience among the healthy offensive linemen with 18 career starts followed by Chester's eight starts, Yanda's four starts and Grubbs' one.

Yanda drew a difficult assignment of attempting to wall off the Rams' top pass rusher, Leonard Little, who has 74 career sacks. Yanda. though, has made major progress since his first action when he committed three penalties in a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

"You'd expect more problems with a rookie right tackle than we've had," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "You just keep getting through the games and realizing, 'Gee, the kid played well the whole game.'"

Yanda is known as a scrappy technician, undersized and aggressive at 6-3, 310 pounds.

"I still have room to grow as a player, there's a lot to digest and learn," Yanda said. "I can't be satisfied. I have a lot of work to do. I have to stay focused on my technique and keep working to get better.

This configuration of the line offers a sneak preview of the impending future because Ogden, 33, pondered retirement during the offseason and Flynn, 33, is in his 10th season and has said he's essentially year-to-year at this point.

"We don't really talk about that," Grubbs said. "One way or another, we have to get the job done. Some people have called us 'The Young Guns.' I like that."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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