Gaither Steps Up to the Challenge

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It seems that Jared Gaither is, in fact, an able replacement for Jonathan Ogden at left tackle for the Ravens.

But it wasn't always that way.

Sure, Gaither had the size (6-foot-9, 330 pounds) to match favorably with Ogden, but No. 75's Hall of Fame credentials provided a tall order.

Gaither, though, has stepped up to become one of the most reliable blockers on a young offensive line, and he got there with nothing else but hard work. With Baltimore entering an AFC Championship tilt with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Gaither is one of the most important cogs of the Ravens' offense.

Ogden, arguably the best left tackle in NFL history, hung up his cleats in June in an expected move from everyone associated with the Ravens. At that time, Baltimore left its options open for the next in line.

It could have been Gaither. Adam Terry had a shot. And, there was the long-shot possibility of signing a free agent to take Ogden's place.

Through several weeks of minicamps and Organized Team Activities (OTAs), Ravens coaches, led by offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, evaluated what talent they had on the line and finally settled on the group that has been stout for Baltimore all season long a few weeks before training camp.

Gaither's performance during the offseason showed that he was the man for the job.

"They wanted to see it down the road," he said Wednesday. "I think with the OTAs and training camp, I started to be that guy. I stepped in and played that role. Cam came to me and told me that nothing would be given to me."

The way Gaither responded ran counter to the labels he received at the University of Maryland.

After two stellar seasons as a Terrapin, Gaither was kept off the field for spring practices in 2007 because of academic issues.

Instead of heading to the library, he decided to enter the NFL's supplemental draft and was taken in the fifth round by the Ravens.

Gaither tutored for one year under Ogden before he was offered the opportunity to be Ogden's heir. Even at the young age of 22, Gaither was ready and willing to step up to an immense challenge in front of his peers.

"I just had to go to work," Gaither stated. "There were some questions right around when J.O. was thinking about retiring, and I just told the guys that I was going to prepare whether he was going to be there or was not. It was just in case, and I ended up being the guy. That was my answer to all the questions."

Through Baltimore's August training camp, Gaither continued to improve, even when he was sidelined for a long spell because of an ankle injury. The White Plains, Md., native continued to stay mentally sharp when free-agent signee Chad Slaughter filled in.

"That was tough, going through the injury," Gaither said. "I wouldn't say it was a setback, but it wasn't something anyone wants to deal with."

There was no stopping Gaither, however.

Though he was sidelined, Cameron continued to sing his praises.

"He's without question the most improved guy on offense, in my opinion," Cameron said last summer.

Obviously, Cameron knew what he was talking about.

The Ravens were saddled with a difficult situation entering 2008. Not only did they begin the year with the NFL's youngest offensive line, they also had a rookie quarterback in Joe Flacco, who was helming the Division I-AA Delaware Blue Hens the previous year.

According to head coach John Harbaugh, as a left tackle goes, so does the quarterback.

"You can't play quarterback without an offensive line, and you can't run the ball without an offensive line," Harbaugh noted. "You hear those guys say it all the time. Those guys have got a little chemistry about them."

Gaither's stability has been a major part of that, even though he would admit there was some trepidation entering the regular season. He and the rest of the offensive line responded by playing their best football in January.

For two playoff meetings, the Ravens have not allowed a single sack, which is a product of sound protection and Flacco's willingness to throw out of bounds when he feels heat.

"To be honest, you wouldn't think that a rookie quarterback could handle it as well as Joe has," the typically understated Gaither said. "There would be a little pressure when a rookie quarterback is back there, but we've been doing a good job of keeping the guys off Joe, and he's doing a good job at getting the ball off. Things just worked out."

All year, Gaither has faced tests from which lesser tackles would shrink, and he's done it with severe limitations. In Week 11 against the New York Giants, Gaither sprained his left shoulder and left the game. The next Sunday, he was forced into action after Terry suffered a concussion and had to be sidelined.

Gather gutted out a strong showing with one arm to subdue the Eagles' fierce pass rush, which showed his teammates how tough the young lineman was.

"All season, he's done everything we've asked," said right tackle Willie Anderson, who is the learned veteran of the offensive line with 13 years of experience. "He's practiced hard, he's played hurt. I tell him all the time, the big-time players in this league play when they're not feeling well and go out and perform at a high lever even if they aren't at their best. At 22 years old, he's learned that."

The Steelers boast the NFL's AP Defensive Player of the Year in outside linebacker James Harrison. Harrison totaled an eye-opening 16 sacks during the regular season. In the Ravens' first meeting with the Steelers, Harrison notched 2.5 sacks. The second time, he was stonewalled.

Gaither, who has constantly faced a barrage of star linebackers and defensive ends in his first year starting, isn't backing down to facing Harrison a third time.

"Being through what I've been through this season, there isn't much else a player can bring," said a now-healthy Gaither. "But he's got it all. He's quick, he's strong and has that low center of gravity. He just knows his stuff. It's a challenge, but I'll be prepared."

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