Facing strong line, Ravens `D' aims to hold its ground

Broncos' renowned unit powerfully paves way for 5th-ranked rushing game

September 25, 2002|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Kelly Gregg and his fellow Ravens defensive linemen did extra wind sprints after yesterday's practice in preparation for Monday night's game against the 3-0 Denver Broncos. Afterward, an out-of-breath Gregg offered himself up as an example of how great a challenge the Ravens face in trying to contain the Broncos' running game.

"Their offensive line is so good," said Gregg, 6 feet, 285 pounds, "I think I could run behind it."

Denver's offensive line has been a team strength since the mid-1990s, but the unit has had a couple of its toughest days against the Ravens.

A year ago to the date of Monday night's game, the Ravens shut down running backs Mike Anderson and Olandis Gary, holding them to 50 yards on 18 carries in a 20-13 win in Denver. Nine months earlier, the Ravens held the Broncos to 42 total rushing yards in a wild-card playoff victory.

With the Ravens' well-documented defensive changes, the previous success may not have much bearing come Monday. The Broncos, who've lost the retired Terrell Davis but added explosive rookie Clinton Portis to augment Anderson and Gary, continue to be one of the NFL's best ground teams (fifth in the league at 156 yards a game), while the Ravens' run defense is still developing.

Portis, in his first extensive action Sunday against Buffalo, rushed for 103 yards on 18 carries in place of an injured Gary, who left the game early with a sprained left ankle. Although Gary is technically the starter, Portis leads the Broncos in yards with 149, and Anderson leads in per-carry average with 5.8.

"It makes it tougher, because all three of them add something different to the game, and all three of them are good," said Ravens linebacker Peter Boulware. "We are going to have to be ready for them, and Denver does a good job of running the ball anyway.

"You would think if you lose Terrell Davis, your running game would go down, but they still find a way to get it done."

The Ravens' defense, meanwhile, is coming off an impressive performance against Tampa Bay running backs Michael Pittman and Mike Alstott on Sept. 15.

Both backs averaged fewer than 3 yards a carry and did not have a rush over 10 yards.

"Denver's offensive line, they are proven winners," said Ravens defensive end Marques Douglas. "They do a lot of things to people that is to their advantage. We were able to control the Bucs, but we have to step up our game."

The Tampa Bay loss was a rebound game for the Ravens, who got pushed around by the Carolina Panthers in the season opener. Journeyman Lamar Smith rushed for 84 yards and the Panthers totaled 145 on the ground. The Ravens allowed more total rushing yardage in just two games all of last season.

"The first game was a disappointment, and a lot of that had to do with the perimeter run," said defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. "They did a good job of setting the edge. We got a little better last week; overall, we did a pretty good job. It will be a test because Denver has been a strong running team over the years."

The Broncos' offensive line gets much of the credit. The undersized but athletic group tends to block low on linebackers, which means the Ravens will need linemen Douglas, Gregg, Tony Weaver, Michael McCrary, Adalius Thomas and especially tackle Maake Kemoeatu to contain their respective men.

"They certainly pose a different running game than a large majority of the NFL as far as their run-blocking techniques," Nolan said.

"They block you low. People refer to it as a `fast reach.' They `fast reach' people and build their cutbacks off of it. That's really what makes it difficult, because they get people on the ground and it opens up seams for the backs."

The holes apparently are there for whatever back is in. Portis became Denver's fourth different 100-yard rusher over the past four seasons. Gary, who started the first three games, said earlier this week he should be ready to play.

"It will be a good test," Boulware said. "I think we are up to the challenge. They are probably one of the better running games that we will face.

"Last week was a good run team, but this week is a great run team and a great pass team with a great quarterback. This team brings the whole dynamic to the table."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Denver Broncos

Site: Ravens Stadium

When: Monday, 9 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Broncos by 7

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