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SAN FRANCISCO — In the span of just eight minutes, the Baltimore Ravens transformed from a veteran offensive line into one barely old enough to shave.
After left offensive tackle Adam Terry sprained his left ankle and veteran center Mike Flynn sprained his right knee during a second-quarter scoring drive in a 9-7 win Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers, the Ravens were forced to play three rookies upfront.
It was a glimpse of the future of the offensive line, albeit a look that wasn’t expected to completely phase in for a year or two.
Despite the unprecedented chaos, the Ravens remained calm.
"We hold each other together, we picked each other up," said 6-foot-9, 350-pound rookie left tackle Jared Gaither, the former University of Maryland standout picked in the supplemental draft this summer. "We had each other’s back. The future is now."
With third-year left guard Jason Brown, 24, the most experienced lineman on the field for Baltimore, the Ravens managed to not allow a sack as they were forced to insert Gaither, 21, on the left side with second-year guard Chris Chester, 24, taking Flynn’s place in the middle. Those youngsters were playing alongside rookie right guard Ben Grubbs, 23, who was making his first NFL start, along rookie right tackle Marshal Yanda, 22, who started his fourth career game.
With All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden deactivated because of a lingering turf toe injury, the Ravens had no healthy offensive lineman available in case anyone else got hurt.
"Adversity, adversity, adversity," Brown said. "In sports situations like this, you know it’s going to happen during the season, but you never expect for two to go down in a game. When it hits the fan, you’ve got to be ready.
"We looked at each other in the eyes and said, ‘Hey, you got to go.’ It’s very simple. You’ve got to either sink or swim. We had no option. We had to swim."
Despite the injuries and four-fifths of the offensive line not in their normal configuration, Baltimore rolled up 315 yards of total offense.
Offensive line coach Chris Foerster said he’ll need to watch the film to be certain, but gave the young linemen a passing grade.
"The most encouraging thing was that they kept their composure on the sideline and on the field," Foerster said. "It was their first time and it was great that they were composed."
Ravens coach Brian Billick acknowledged that he wasn’t certain what kind of contingency plan he would have executed if anyone else went down.
"Quite frankly, I don’t know," Billick said.
When asked who was up next, Foerster joked: "That’s our secret weapon."
Brown said that the Ravens could have tried to put long snapper Matt Katula in the game at center if anything else happened.
From his sideline view, Flynn, who remained an emergency option even though he said he will undergo a magnetic resonance imaging exam on his knee today, thought the young players held up pretty well.
"I thought they did all right," Flynn said. "It looked like pretty good protection. When you have a tight game like that and the young guys don’t give up the big sack, that’s a spark. That’s huge.
"It’s hard for a guy like Gaither, who hadn’t played at all. To get in there and hold their own, they did a great job."
Gaither was penalized for a false start.
It was Grubbs’ first NFL start after being drafted in the first round out of Auburn with the 29th overall pick. A consensus All-American regarded as the top pure guard in the draft, Grubbs thought he and his teammates acquitted themselves impressively.
"We had three rookies in there and I’m proud of the way we played," said Grubbs, who was flagged for holding in the fourth quarter. "It’s weird not to see those veterans in the huddle and I felt bad when they went down.
"I feel like I did pretty good. I started off pretty good, but, as the game went on, I had a few mistakes. There’s really no explanation for that. I just have to get better."
Still, quarterback Steve McNair had plenty of time to throw even though he didn’t always capitalize on the protection he was granted as he completed 29 of 43 passes for 214 yards.
"I look in front of me and I’m like, ‘I’ve been in the league longer than these guys all together,’" McNair said. "They came through when they had to. I’ve always said that they’re our future and they showed it.
"Those guys are feisty, scrappy and young. The way they played is something that we and they can build on. Besides all that, I’ve got to take them out for a bite to eat on Thursday. They earned it."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital