THE SIGNS are encouraging, and the potential is unlimited. But the Ravens' defensive line will learn a lot about itself today when the team plays the Pittsburgh Steelers at Ravens Stadium.
The Ravens have been one of the NFL's biggest surprise stories of the 2002 season, but if they want to become No. 1 in the AFC North, the road to the top runs through the Steelers' offensive line. Many pro personnel directors believe Pittsburgh is the most talented team in the AFC with the best offensive line in the league.
Meet Pittsburgh tackles Wayne Gandy, Marvel Smith, guards Alan Faneca, Kendall Simmons and center Chukky Okobi, who is filling in for the injured Jeff Hartings, one of the most versatile at his position in the game. It's a big, strong, fast and intimidating group.
The Steelers smacked the Indianapolis Colts around on Monday night. If that had been a title fight, it would have been stopped in the middle rounds. In the past three games of this series (two Pittsburgh wins), the Steelers have pushed the Ravens all over the field, rushing for 123, 158 and 154 yards. Pittsburgh likes to play maul ball.
"It's an outstanding group," said Ravens defensive line coach Rex Ryan. "They have four first-round picks and a second-round pick in that starting group, which means they're good athletes. You don't draft guys in the first round who are slugs. They do a really nice job."
"Their scheme is really solid, and it's been in place for more than 20 years," he said. "It's a huge challenge for us. If we do well against this group then, well, we might be really onto something here."
Pittsburgh is No. 6 in the conference in rushing with 125.3 yards a game. The line isn't overly big, but it does an excellent job at recognizing fronts and then attacking with a steady, unrelenting running game.
There is nothing fancy. The Ravens have seen it before. Straight dives and stretch plays where they pull the play side guard or tackle, whoever is uncovered. In 2000, the Ravens had success because they could go toe-to-toe with the Steelers up front with tackles Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa, Lional Dalton, Larry Webster and ends Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett.
But most of those guys aren't around anymore. Adams, Webster, Dalton and Burnett hit the free-agent trail. Siragusa retired, and McCrary is on the back end of great career. He will miss today's game because of recurring knee problems.
But the new Ravens hope to counter the Steelers with speed, athleticism and passion.
"We have a high-energy group. Our guys don't take plays off," Ryan said. "They are highly professional, and every day they go out on the practice field and try to get better. From a coaching standpoint, it's great to watch, but they pay us to win games and you hope for quick development. We're heading in the right direction. We're making steps, they might be baby steps, but we're making them."
The Ravens are taking baby steps because the defensive line is in an infancy stage. The starters are rookie left end Anthony Weaver and two third-year players: right end Adalius Thomas and nose guard Kelly Gregg. Weaver has almost as many NFL starts as Thomas and Gregg have. The backups include rookie nose guard Maake Kemoeatu and tackle Riddick Parker, a six-year veteran.
Besides the overall lack of playing experience, the Ravens are also fairly light. Kemoeatu is the only imposing defensive lineman on the roster at 6 feet 5 and 330 pounds.
So, what then has made this group so successful thus far?
Athleticism. These guys are able to stay on their feet and pursue. Former Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis instilled the philosophy and current defensive coordinator Mike Nolan continues to preach it.
There are no Michael Strahans or Warren Sapps on this roster. Not one player has the total package yet.
Take, for example, Gregg and Kemoeatu.
"Our two nose guards aren't the prototypes," Ryan said. "When God created nose guards, he didn't have Kelly Gregg's body in mind. He probably had Kemo's body, and their hearts. Kelly is a great technician. It helps him having been a great wrestler because he has great balance, awareness and outstanding hands. He bench-presses over 500 pounds."
"Kemo was a great find from the scouting department," Ryan said of the rookie free agent out of Utah. "It's hard to imagine a guy that big not being drafted. He plays hard, but it's like he's really just learning how to play."
The Ravens, though, do have two players with excellent overall potential. Weaver, the second-round pick from Notre Dame, has size and speed, and he'll get stronger after an offseason in the weight room. He needs to play the run better, but that will come with improving his technique.
Thomas is another athletic wonder, sort of like Ray Lewis. He weighs 270 pounds, but runs the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds. Now, if he would only become more focused.