Opening holes, not eyes

Ravens: Despite Jamal Lewis' 2,000-yard season, the offensive line - except for Jonathan Ogden - continues to go unnoticed.

Ravens / Titans

Afc Wild - Card Game

January 01, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

In Buffalo, O.J. Simpson ran behind the Electric Company. In Washington, John Riggins powered his way behind the Hogs.

So, after paving the way for Jamal Lewis' run into the record books, what nickname best describes the Ravens' offensive line?

"We're `The Untouchables,' " right tackle Orlando Brown said, "because nobody wanted to touch us."

Outside of Pro Bowl tackle Jonathan Ogden, the biggest line in the NFL entered the league unnoticed and has gone throughout Lewis' 2,000-yard season the same way.

Three-fifths of the starters - Brown, center Mike Flynn and right guard Bennie Anderson - were undrafted. And left guard Edwin Mulitalo wasn't selected until the second day of the draft.

It's not the typical foundation for building the NFL's second-most prolific single-season rushing attack. But it's the right pedigree for a blue-collar line that prides itself on outworking defenses.

"We're guys that are just happy to be here in a sense," Flynn said. "We don't have any egos. We have gone from no-names to a little bit of a name."

That growing reputation will come under fire in Saturday's wild-card game, when the top-ranked run offense faces the top-ranked run defense. The Ravens have averaged 166.8 yards per game, while the Tennessee Titans give up 80.9 yards.

Tennessee's style represents the biggest adjustment for the Ravens' line. Mulitalo said the Titans' front four - which includes three first-round draft picks - attacks the ball more than most of the Ravens' opponents, who usually read and react.

"You hear how big and strong they are," Mulitalo said. "At the same time, I'm big and strong, too. Everyone will have our wills tested."

The Ravens may be brothers in arms, yet they're not a close-knit family.

They'll joke about Ogden never picking up a tab or Mulitalo being voted the worst physique by Muscle and Fitness magazine, but they meet up only twice a month for dinner. One reason could be the biggest bill racked up by this eight-man group exceeded $3,000 at Ruth's Chris Steak House.

Nevertheless, the line seamlessly meshes its diverse personalities and backgrounds in the trenches.

Ogden is considered the intellectual from UCLA. Mulitalo is the carefree Mormon from the West Coast. Flynn is the line's feisty leader from New England. Anderson is the quiet one from the Midwest. And Brown is the tough guy from Washington who brought a raw edge to the group.

"We're all different, but we're all the same in the aspect that we all like to pound people," Ogden said.

With four starters 340 pounds or heavier, the line thrives on roughing up opponents.

Teams typically put eight defenders near the line of scrimmage - one more than the Ravens' blockers - yet the Ravens have still opened holes big enough for Lewis to average 5.3 yards per carry. While most eyes follow Lewis galloping downfield, few see the line driving defenders 10 yards down the field or knocking them off their feet.

It's a familiar situation for these linemen, who have been beating the odds since stepping their size-16 feet into the league.

Flynn had to bounce around three practice squads. Anderson was cut before the St. Louis Rams' training camp opened and then played in the XFL. And Brown might be the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year, working himself back after missing three years with an eye injury.

That workmanlike attitude has won over coach Brian Billick, who had three first-round picks on the line as the Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator.

"I've never been a part of or seen a team deal with this much of a presence on the line of scrimmage every snap in an entire season," Billick said. "That's what truly makes the accomplishment of 2,000 yards and No. 1 rushing team more significant to me.

"That's both physically and mentally. People have tried to muscle us and trick us, moving people around and showing different looks. That's where the maturity of the group has helped and communication has been at a premium."

The Ravens, though, don't want to be characterized as simply bullies.

"We're relatively smart guys," Flynn said. "A lot of the defenses we've played this year have been really complicated. We watch teams do something totally different than what we study on film.

"We deserve some respect because we're under pressure every week. We know for us to be successful we have to run the ball."

This line got disrespected before the season began.

In Sports Illustrated's preseason issue, one unnamed league scout described the Ravens' line as "Jonathan Ogden and four schmoes." The Ravens have not forgotten.

"I guess J.O. and the schmoes rushed for 2,000 yards," Anderson said.

Surpassing expectations has not spoiled this group.

Team officials wanted to introduce the No. 1 rushing attack before the regular-season finale and have the linemen head out of the tunnel holding hands. But they turned down their time in the spotlight.

"The fans might not know about us," Brown said. "But when teams look at the film, they know us."

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