Defensive line is meshing, but needs to start mashing

August 25, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

The Ravens will play their third preseason game tonight against the Minnesota Vikings, and everyone on the defensive line is confident and at ease. This is no time to panic, just time to start playing.

It's hard to remember any big plays made by a Ravens defensive lineman in the first two games. Think about it. Nothing from Trevor Pryce. Nothing from Terrell Suggs. Rookie tackle Haloti Ngata looked slow in his debut last week against the Philadelphia Eagles, and the only player to make any impact has been tackle Kelly Gregg.

But the Ravens believe they will take a step forward against the Vikings, who have a very good offensive line led by center Matt Birk, left guard Steve Hutchinson and left tackle Bryant McKinnie. It has been a month since training camp started, so it's time to see some progress.

"This has been an ongoing process," Ravens defensive line coach Clarence Brooks said. "We have a couple of veterans coming in from other organizations, and a rookie working in [the rotation]. The way we performed in the first preseason game was OK, and the second was a little bit better. We look to be better in this game. The familiarity is starting to come."

So is some doubt.

If the Ravens want to make a serious playoff run, they have to get quality play from their interior lines. The Ravens have good skill players and a winning, veteran quarterback. The offensive line has played well in the two preseason games, but the defensive line has been less than stellar.

Ngata, the team's first-round draft pick, was sluggish and hesitant a week ago. Suggs, the Pro Bowl end, seems like he's waiting for the regular season to start before he gets serious. Reserve tackle Justin Bannan has had problems adjusting to a new scheme and techniques, and Pryce - well, has anyone seen him? He has hardly been the force the Ravens expected when they signed him during the offseason.

"Some of the old things Trevor and Justin had in the old scheme, well, they've made some changes, and now realize we do it differently," Brooks said. "They're starting to adjust."

Before joining the Ravens, Pryce spent nine seasons in Denver. Bannan was in Buffalo for four years. According to Gregg, the Ravens are trying to develop some chemistry, the same type of cohesiveness they had last year with end Tony Weaver and tackle Maake Kemoeatu. That group had been together for several years.

They reached the point where they didn't talk much, but used hand signals. The present group is just starting to talk and communicate.

"We're in the same defenses we were in a year ago," Gregg said. "We're going from a 4-3 to a 3-4, and sometimes to the 46, but we've got to get some of these new guys worked in.

"We had a good thing with Kemo and Weave; now we have to get on the same page with these guys and move on. But that's what preseason is for, to get on the same page. We've come a long way since training camp, and the more we work, the better we get."

Ngata got pushed around early against the Eagles and was slow coming off the ball and filling gaps. The Ravens run a lot of stunts in their defensive packages, so the schemes are sometimes complex. It had to be confusing for a rookie.

The 6-foot-4, 340-pound Ngata was brought in to protect middle linebacker Ray Lewis by occupying one or two offensive linemen in the middle. The rookie seemed down after last week's game, but has been upbeat this week. In a way, he reminds you of Kemoeatu. Like Ngata, Kemoeatu was a gentle giant in his first couple of seasons, but was often motivated by then-defensive line coach Rex Ryan during the week of the game.

Brooks might have to play head games with Ngata.

"I think he was nervous," Brooks said of Ngata's debut. "He is a proud kid. He knows the deal, that he is a first-round kid and all the eyes are on him. He was a little apprehensive. Unfortunately, he was injured in the Washington scrimmage. He's working through that, and he is so much better now health-wise than he was last week."

Suggs seems to be in cruise control. He had 86 tackles last year, including eight sacks, and knows he has to turn his game up a notch to reach the top level. He can dominate most offensive tackles but disappears against some of the best ones. He also has to stop free-lancing and must improve in run defense.

The Ravens have some depth, but it's unproven. Bannan was a backup last year in Buffalo. Backup end Dwan Edwards played well at the end of last season, but has had a slow start since training camp.

Second-year player Dan Cody and Jarret Johnson have seen time at end and outside linebacker. The most impressive backup has been fourth-year tackle Aubrayo Franklin. He's now part of the regular rotation.

It's an interesting group, a mix of young and old, experienced and inexperienced. It's a group that has to carry the Ravens on its back, sharing the load with the offensive line. Their counterparts, at least in the first two games, have begun to prove themselves.

"Birk, Hutchinson and McKinnie, they're a good test for us," Brooks said. "That's a very solid offensive line with two good tight ends and a veteran quarterback. Chester [Taylor, former Ravens running back] will be wanting to roll. This should be a pretty good game."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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