Baxter, Gregg unsung now ... but stay tuned

January 02, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

LOST AMONG THE eight Pro Bowl selections and three alternates, and the league's defensive and offensive players of the year, are two other deserving Ravens.

One is a nearly perfect physical specimen; the other doesn't fit the prototype for his position. One loves to talk and has his own radio show; drawing words out of the other is like getting Rush Limbaugh to admit he doesn't know anything about football.

Meet Gary Baxter and Kelly Gregg, possibly the next two stars on the Ravens defense. Both will play critical roles tomorrow when the Ravens face Tennessee at M&T Bank Stadium in an AFC wild-card game.

Baxter, a starting cornerback, should match up with receiver Justin McCareins, because fellow corner Chris McAlister will go against receiver Derrick Mason. Nobody wants to throw on McAlister, a Pro Bowl selection.

Gregg, a nose guard, might have the game's biggest mismatch. He should be able to dominate Tennessee center Justin Harwig. But the problem will come on double teams, because the Titans have two huge guards in Zach Piller (321 pounds) and Benji Olson (320).

The Titans are now considered more of a big-play team as compared with the grind-it-out days when running back Eddie George was the focal point of the offense.

McCareins should be high on the Titans' priority list. That's where Baxter seems to draw most of his attention, on the field. Off the field, when it comes to postseason awards, no one seems to notice.

"Everybody wants to achieve individual goals and team goals," said Baxter. "It hurts, it definitely did. But it will give me more wood for the fire next year, because I definitely want to make it."

The kid out of Baylor can play. He has the nearly perfect body for the position. At 6 feet 2 and 204 pounds, Baxter is both physical and fast enough to play in bump-and-run coverage. But even more impressively, Baxter plays the run without fear. He comes up quickly to provide support on the corner and is third on the team in tackles with 106.

Teams try to attack him instead of McAlister and have found little success.

If the Ravens had not been moving him back and forth between cornerback and safety the past two years, the third-year cornerback might have been on the AFC Pro Bowl team.

"I have done what was best for the team even if it took away from my individual goal," said Baxter. "Right now, we're playing well where I'm at. But I want to talk about playing one position at the end of the season. I'm good at corner, I'm good at safety, but I want to see if I can become great at one of them."

The Ravens agree.

"He has the great ability to absorb information and process it," said secondary coach Donnie Henderson. "Actually, moving him around has enhanced his progress. There will be 31 other teams out there trying to find another player like him, so his stock has gone up financially. One thing I do regret, though, is I haven't put him in one position where he can become a Pro Bowl player. We plan to move on that for next season."

Gregg can't hide. He is right in the middle of traffic and constantly taking on double teams. Surprisingly, Gregg hasn't had an injury all season. But you know he has to be hurting.

Playing nose guard is one of the most thankless jobs in football. You're always getting attacked from various angles, and your job is just to not give ground. Gregg, though, is fourth on the team in tackles with 104.

He is the kind of player defensive line coach Rex Ryan wants.

"I like to have guys who have heart and toughness," said Ryan. "I don't want big-name guys who don't work. I'm not big on that. Guys in the pits have to be warriors. I think Kelly Gregg is a mismatch for their center, and I don't care if he knows it or not. Kelly is a hell of a nose tackle. Kelly is a stud."

Studs come in all shapes and sizes. At 6-0 and 310 pounds, Gregg is considered too short and too small to be a nose guard. Look at him on Sundays. He wears his pants up to his chin strap.

But when the whistle blows, Gregg just rolls up his sleeves.

"Kelly is one of those players you have to throw out the computer, height, weight and speed, and just say he is a good football player," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. "Nothing about Kelly Gregg said he was a football player until he got on the field. He used to play tight end and fullback for us when he was on the practice squad.

"Everybody loved him because he just played and never complained. He just did his job as well as he could. He is just another one of those great American stories, a guy who beat all the odds of saying you can't play in the National Football League."

It's a good thing the Ravens speak for Gregg, because he doesn't say much about himself. Unlike Baxter, he is not a man of many words. But on the field, their actions have spoken volumes. It's just that on a team of big-name players, they have gotten lost in the shuffle.

But it might be different next year. They could cross the line into stardom.

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