The Ravens' young offensive line has played better overall than outsiders expected in 2012, but it has also experienced some growing pains.
The unit features two new young starters – right tackle Kelechi Osemele and left guard Ramon Harewood – getting their first action in the NFL, and the line also had to adjust to the new up-tempo style of the offense.
The first quarter of the season has included its share of ups and downs, as the young group is still learning the NFL game.
"It's been solid, but there are obviously areas we can improve and we know that," veteran center Matt Birk said Monday. "We know that it's a work in progress, especially with young guys and different guys playing different positions."
In Thursday's victory over the Cleveland Browns, the line allowed more pressure than they had in previous contests, as quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked four times, hit twice and hurried seven other times, according to the statistical analysis website Pro Football Focus.
The four sacks were the most that the Ravens have allowed all season, and the Browns were able to get pressure based on some of the stunts, movement and blitzes from their defensive front. The movement was a new look for Osmele and Harewood, who were playing in just their fourth NFL game.
"They did some movement stuff up front, both run and pass, that young guys just haven't seen before," Head Coach John Harbaugh said.
Given the youth of the line, which has only played together for four games, Harbaugh said that the group has done "amazingly well" this season and they simply have to get acclimated to the different approaches defenses use.
"If you are a rookie, everything is new – you haven't seen anything before at this level," Harbaugh said. "So, that's part of the learning experience."
Browns defensive end Jabaal Sheard made his presence felt in the pass-rushing department, as he finished with one sack and two quarterback hurries. For much of the night he matched up against Osemele, who admitted that he struggled with the pass rush. Osemele allowed one sack and two quarterback hurries.
"For me personally, I feel like it was a tough night," Osemele said. "I didn't feel like I played as well as I wanted to play, but they're all fixable mistakes, they're all technique things."
The movement up front allowed the Browns to get pressure on Flacco, and it also limited what the Ravens could do on the ground. Harewood noticed that most of the Browns' stunts and blitzing were done to counteract the ground game, and running back Ray Rice finished with 49 yards on 18 carries.
"I would have to give them their props," Harewood said. "They were doing a lot of slants, and shifts and stuff like that to get us off our run game."
In addition to Osemele and Harewood playing for the first time, fourth-year tackle Michael Oher also changed positions again this year. He moved back to the left side, which he hadn't played since the 2010 season.
Despite getting flagged three times on Thursday – two holding penalties and one false start – Oher still had a solid game against the Browns. He allowed just one hit and one hurry on Flacco.
"I think Michael has played very well," Harbaugh said. "He's an excellent player."
Last week's game against the Browns was just the fourth time that the Ravens have played with their currently constructed line: Oher, Osemele, Harewood, center Matt Birk and right guard Marshal Yanda.
They rotated a number of different pieces in the preseason, including veterans Bryant McKinnie and Bobbie Williams, before deciding to go with Harewood and Osemele in the starting lineup. The young approach has proven successful through the first quarter of the season, as the Ravens rank as one of the NFL's top offenses.
The Ravens' line will get tested again this week against a talented Kansas City Chiefs front. The Chiefs have eight sacks on the season, which ranks 17th in the NFL, but top pass rusher Tamba Hali was suspended for the first game of the year and has been slow to get started. Hali got his first sack on Sunday and the two-time Pro Bowler appears to be getting into a rhythm.
The Chiefs will challenge the offensive line, which has to continue adjusting to how defenses will try to attack them.
"Definitely we can get better on a lot of things," Oher said. "I'm getting better every snap, every day. I'm just trying to work on technique and fundamentals and I'm still learning as I go."