Ravens turn to subs on defense

Injuries force team to use rotation of no-names at ends

Pro Football

November 23, 2001|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Kelly Gregg may be in the spotlight on Sunday. That is, if the spotlight can find Gregg.

Graciously listed at 6 feet in height, Gregg recognizes that it's a stretch for him to be playing in the NFL, much less a viable candidate to be starting at defensive end for the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens on Sunday.

But with the Ravens expecting to play without starting ends Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett, they are leaning toward a specialized platoon system where the stocky Gregg fits right in this overachieving group of replacements.

Instead of having a combined 21 years experience at the ends, the NFL's second-ranked defense will be relying on the no-name likes of Gregg, Adalius Thomas and Shannon Taylor, three low-round draft picks who have a combined one start between them.

"None of us wants to be that weakest link," Gregg said. "You always want to figure into the mix and make big plays."

These creative contingency plans have had to come on the fly. Burnett is still nursing a severe strain in his left calf, and McCrary is out for the season after undergoing knee surgery on Monday.

In the Ravens' base defense, their ends will likely be a rotation of Gregg, Thomas and Larry Webster, with Sam Adams shifting to the outside in certain situations. On passing downs, the Ravens are planning to rush linebackers Taylor and Peter Boulware as ends.

The Ravens, though, are hesitant about divulging their schemes and have even floated around the idea of switching to a 3-4 defense. They want to be as mysterious this week as the Jaguars, who are keeping the status of quarterback Mark Brunell up in the air.

"We got a lot of thoughts, a lot of plans," Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. "What we do is our business. Like their quarterback, it's their business."

The Ravens' best hidden weapon is Gregg, a veteran of two practice squads as well as NFL Europe. In fact, he's too hidden at times.

Last Sunday, the Ravens sometimes thought they were without a left end on the field because they couldn't see Gregg lined up beside Adams. But Gregg wasn't lost on the game film, using his skills as a three-time high school state champion to make three tackles, including his first career sack.

"Looks can be deceiving," said defensive line coach Rex Ryan, who coached Gregg at Oklahoma University. "You got to get by the shock value first. He's not the prototypical defensive end especially. They're usually six inches taller than him. He plays with great leverage and low pad level and he plays hard. He's a relentless guy. He's definitely someone that can play in this league."

The player who benefits the most from McCrary's absence is Thomas, a Ravens' sixth-round draft pick in 2000 who will remain a starter the rest of the season. A pure athlete, Thomas can deliver big plays, but the team wants a nastier attitude from him.

Although he recorded four sacks and deflected two passes against the Browns, Cleveland had success running at him.

"With Burnett and McCrary, there's a real comfort level there because those guys have been through the wars and this guy is just a young man trying to carve his own niche," Ryan said. "It's something that takes time. He's got all the God-given ability in the world. It showed up and he did make some of those plays, flashing that athletic ability."

Waiting for an opportunity is nothing new for Taylor. He was out of a job at the start of the season until the Ravens signed him on Sept. 9 to replace Cornell Brown, who was released after being charged with drug possession.

Now, with McCrary gone, Taylor seems to have landed a role as the pass-rushing end on the right side.

"Mike told me that I was going to get my shot," said Taylor, who was originally a sixth-round draft pick in 2000 by the San Diego Chargers. "When you got a high draft pick, they're going to get the first opportunities. When something like this happens for a guy like myself, you got to take it and run with it."

For the Ravens, this defensive end by committee lacks experience, not hunger.

"I've always said teams are made off of their role players," Thomas said. "That's what this game is going to be about and maybe the rest of the season. You're only as strong as your weakest link."

NOTES: Middle linebacker Ray Lewis (thigh strain) missed his second straight practice and is considered day-to-day. Cornerback James Trapp (questionable with groin pull) and defensive tackle Adams (probable with knee injury) were the only other Ravens who did not practice. ... Tight end Shannon Sharpe leads all NFL tight ends with 50 catches for 568 yards. It marks his ninth season with 50 or more receptions, which is tops among all-time tight ends. ... Jerron Richardson, a defensive end for Randallstown High, and Megan Buescher, a team captain for the River Hill High soccer team, were selected as the Ravens Champions for this week.

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Jacksonville Jaguars

Site: ALLTEL Stadium, Jacksonville, Fla.

When: Sunday, 4:15 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 3

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