Defensive line still hard to cross

Despite lighter weight, reputation, Ravens' trio effective as predecessors

August 03, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Once the trendsetters for bulky defensive linemen, the Ravens replaced their tackles a couple of years ago with, according to their heavily influenced league standards, a bunch of lightweights.

The Ravens' starting line - nose tackle Kelly Gregg and ends Tony Weaver and Marques Douglas - lacks the pounds, personalities and Pro Bowls of its predecessors.

Yet this interior group, which may be among the NFL's smallest at an average of 293 pounds, is breaking stereotypes and holding its ground statistically, even against the Ravens' decorated past. The problem is, with no big-name talent or persona, this defensive front always gets left in the background.

"I guess the answer should be, `Yeah, we don't care about the recognition.' But honestly, we're getting tired of that," Weaver said. "We definitely think we're the cream of the crop. We think we deserve to be stars. There's a reason why we're putting up these numbers. We just don't show up and it happens. We may not talk the talk, but we walk the walk."

Last year, the Ravens defense stonewalled teams by finishing sixth in rushing yards allowed per game (96.0) and third in yards per carry (3.4), which is comparable to their heyday. In 2001 - the last season imposing tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams plugged the gaps - the Ravens ranked fourth in rushing average per game (88.2) and third per carry (3.4).

But what has hurt the reputation of the current line is its last game.

In the 20-17 playoff loss to Tennessee, the Ravens surrendered 165 yards rushing on 40 carries. The Titans controlled the clock (35 of the game's 60 minutes) and, in many observers' minds, the line of scrimmage.

That performance led to the question: Did the undersized line wear down at the end of the season? Ravens defensive line coach Rex Ryan said the assertion that his players got pushed around is "ridiculous."

But his linemen have used it as motivation.

"It's nice getting good credit, but you have to take bad credit, too," Gregg said. "We can't have a game like that. We got to go out there and stop everyone. There can't be any excuses."

Stopping running games has remained the measuring stick.

Only two backs (the Miami Dolphins' Ricky Williams and San Diego Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson) cracked 100 yards against them last season. In fact, the Ravens held the top backs of their last seven opponents under 89 yards.

"We may not be the biggest or most athletic, but we work hard," Gregg said. "We all know that when you get a chance, you got to take advantage of it. For us, it was the salary cap purge."

Being $20 million over the cap forced the Ravens to part ways with their 350-pound defensive tackles and change their alignment, which placed three defenders - instead of two - inside the offensive tackles. Controlling the inside and shielding blockers off the linebackers became the priorities for Weaver, Gregg and Douglas, all of whom carried question marks.

Weaver didn't have ideal size (6 feet 3, 290 pounds). Douglas, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in 2000 and 2002, had health issues. And Gregg, who was previously waived by the Philadelphia Eagles and Cincinnati Bengals, didn't appear more than a career backup.

"All of us have a chip on our shoulders," Weaver said. "Our whole career, we've had something to prove. So, that's what we're trying to do right now."

Usually outweighed on the inside, the Ravens' tandem has had to rely more on technique, especially leverage. By staying low to the ground, these linemen are tough to push off the ball, which is proven by their results.

Gregg recorded 104 tackles, which led all NFL linemen. Douglas finished with 20 tackles in his last two games. And Weaver totaled five sacks and two forced fumbles.

"People might not know who they are, but those who watch tape know," Ryan said.

As the Ravens defense once again rises to prominence, Gregg, Douglas and Weaver will hear how they differ with their heavier predecessors. But Ryan, who has coached both lines, said they do share a common link.

"They both have the same toughness and the same pride," Ryan said. "That's why I know the older group is so proud of these younger guys."

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