The five of them were brought together not just to lead the defense, but the entire team.
Meet the starting four defensive linemen of the Ravens: tackles Tony Siragusa, 30, and James Jones, 28; ends Rob Burnett, 29, and Michael McCrary, 27. And don't forget tackle Larry Webster, 28, the fifth man in the mix, which could give the Ravens one of the best lines in the NFL.
The big word is could, as in potential.
"Thus far, it's early and we still have a lot of work to do," said McCrary, one of the league's sack leaders last season with 13 1/2 for the Seattle Seahawks. "But it is important for us to make big plays, or at least keep others alive to make big plays every couple of plays.
"If we're going to the playoffs, I feel as though we're the key. I certainly don't want to be responsible for us not going. There is a lot pressure on the new guys like Goose [Siragusa] and myself to help us win."
Siragusa, 6 feet 3 and 320 pounds, and McCrary, 6-4 and 267, are only parts of the major off-season priority for the Ravens. The team wanted to rebuild its defensive line, which suffered heavy injury losses a year ago and couldn't pressure opposing quarterbacks or keep the opposition off middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
Ravens defensive linemen had only 13 1/2 of the team's 30 sacks last season, and left a suspect secondary exposed. Opponents rushed for 120 yards per game as the Ravens finished with the worst-ranked defense in the NFL.
So during the off-season, Ravens vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome and defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis decided not to retain defensive linemen Dan Footman, Elliott Fortune, Tim Goad and Rick Lyle.
They negotiated with defensive end Anthony Pleasant, but Pleasant asked for more than $1.5 million a season. See ya.
The team signed McCrary on April 7 and Siragusa 17 days later. Burnett made an impressive return from reconstructive knee surgery during the off-season, and Jones, a mainstay, was already signed.
When Webster (6-5, 300) was cleared from a one-year substance-abuse suspension nearly two weeks ago, the defensive line fell into place.
"We're coming along," said Siragusa, who signed as a free agent after seven seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. "Every time we practice, every time we watch film, we're learning what to expect. We didn't know each other at first, but we're past that phase now."
Some of the bonding actually began at the rookie minicamp in late April. That's when Jones starting taking some of the rookie defensive linemen out for dinner.
Now after practice, it's Siragusa, or Burnett, working with the younger players on sled work.
The top five say they feel as if they know each other now. Listen to Burnett on his fellow linemates.
Burnett on Siragusa: "He reminds me a lot of the normal Italian guy you grow up with. He's cool, likes to eat, crack a bunch of jokes."
Burnett on McCrary: "Mac is a cool guy, but he's a little different. He's a little spacy. Every once in a while, you catch him staring into space with that blank look on his face. The guy works super hard."
Burnett on Webster and Jones: "Web is Web. He's just part of the group, kind of laid-back. J. J. is the real laid-back one, man. He's kind of soft-spoken. If you don't like J. J., then you don't like people or you've got something wrong."
Burnett, who handles himself as businesslike on the field as off it, says it's the perfect mix. None of the linemen was a first-round draft pick.
Siragusa and Jones, 6-2 and 290, were initially signed in the league as free agents. Burnett, 6-4 and 280, was a fifth-round pick, McCrary a seventh-rounder. The highest pick was Webster, a third-round selection by the Miami Dolphins in 1992.
"I've been in the league for a while, so you hear a lot about certain individuals," Burnett said. "There are no big egos here. Mac and Goose fit in because they had to work their way from the bottom up. They know how to work and they have experience. They are very in touch with reality.
"This group reminds me of the group we had in 1994 when we set those records with the Cleveland Browns."
Burnett starred along with Michael Dean Perry, Pleasant, Bill Johnson and Jones as the Browns held the opposition to 204 points, a Cleveland record. The Browns held teams under 10 points six times during the season.
The Ravens don't have as much depth, but they do have as much experience. Only McCrary has not been on a playoff team. The Browns, though, did have experienced linebackers like Pepper Johnson and Carl Banks. The Ravens plan to start two rookie linebackers in Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper once they report.
The Ravens have potential for greatness, but also one for disaster. Both Burnett and Siragusa had knee surgery last year, and some critics say McCrary's sack total last season was a fluke. If this group fails, so, probably, do the linebackers and the secondary.
"Athletically, we're a lot better on the line than we were a year ago," said coach Ted Marchibroda. "We think we have improved on paper. Now it's getting it done on the field."
Pub Date: 7/20/97