Holding their ground

While the Ravens struggle in other areas, their proud run defense refuses to yield

Ravens Weekend

November 23, 2007|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Reporter

As a season with more excuses than execution continues to unravel for the Ravens, the final vestige of last season's 13-3 team remains. The dog days of December are fast approaching, and whatever hope of salvaging the season in the final six games depends largely on whether the Ravens can keep stopping the run.

It seems to be the only resemblance to what was once a ferocious, fear-provoking defense.

"We're just trying to hang onto what we can," nose tackle Kelly Gregg said Wednesday after practice in Owings Mills.

A week after Jamal Lewis threatened to become the first opposing running back to gain at least 100 yards at M&T Bank Stadium since 2005 -- Lewis had 92 against his former team in a 33-30 overtime victory for the Cleveland Browns -- the challenge for the Ravens on Sunday could be even more formidable.

Though not nearly as electrifying this season as he was as the league's Most Valuable Player a year ago, LaDainian Tomlinson of the San Diego Chargers certainly will present the type of moving, darting target that the Ravens, regardless of their 4-6 record and dimming playoff chances, seem to revel in trying to bring down.

"We know San Diego is going to run it and they know we're going to try to stop the run," Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "It sounds like a collision. ... This is going to be the best test so far this year facing Tomlinson. We don't care. Bring it on. Give it to him 40 times and see what happens."

The battle lines between these two disappointing teams -- the Chargers, a league-best 14-2 last season, are 5-5 going into Sunday's game at Qualcomm Stadium -- could evolve in other areas, but the most intriguing matchup features one of the game's most recognizable players and one of the league's most faceless defensive lines.

Everyone knows about Ray Lewis, but how many outside Baltimore know about Gregg, an undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma in 2000 who has more tackles than any other interior lineman since 2000? Everyone knows about Ed Reed, but how many outside Ravens Nation know about Haloti Ngata?

Ngata enjoys the anonymity and says he might be more effective because of it.

"As long as people don't know me, that's better," said Ngata, who was the 12th overall pick in the 2006 draft. "I don't want people to think that I'm a great run-stopper. I just want to be kind of hidden so that when the time comes, I can stop the run. We're just there to help out the linebackers and stop the run and rush the passer."

Anonymous bunch

While Lewis remains the lightning rod of a defense ranked sixth overall in the league, and Reed has become its most spectacular playmaker, it is the job that these rather anonymous foot soldiers -- a platoon that also includes Dwan Edwards and Justin Bannan -- have done in the trenches that also have helped keep the Ravens competitive, if not quite dominant, on defense.

The job became a little tougher this week when four-time Pro Bowl player Trevor Pryce, who missed five games earlier this season with a broken left wrist, was put on injured reserve after tearing a pectoral muscle against the Browns. Edwards will continue to start.

"We've had a lot of guys who have been hurt -- it seems like we can't catch a break -- but we don't like to have people come in and have big offensive days on us," Gregg said. "We take it personally."

CBS analyst Solomon Wilcots, a former defensive back with the Cincinnati Bengals, said that this season's defense, even in light of the injuries to Pryce and cornerback Chris McAlister, can be every bit as dominating as those from the recent past -- especially against the run.

"When they step on the field, they're just as hungry and as voracious as they've always been," Wilcots said. "They still intimidate the opponent as they always have and teams still find it hard to run the ball on them, and every team comes wanting to run the ball because that's how you dictate tempo."

Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said that it takes a different type of defensive lineman to be effective in Ryan's system, one that has evolved into a hybrid of the 3-4 used by Mike Nolan and the 4-3 used by Marvin Lewis when they coordinated the team's defense.

"A lot of teams have a defense where everyone runs straight to a gap like a robot. We play off of each other," Scott said. "A lot of `D' linemen around the league couldn't play for our team because they want to spike the gap and make the tackle themselves. These guys are sacrificing their body and their stats for the betterment of the team."

Ryan said the Ravens have consistently been among the best at stopping the run because of technique as much if not more than talent and size. Ryan and defensive line coach Clarence Brooks emphasize tackling with a player's shoulder pads low and squared over his knees to get proper leverage, as opposed to fancy moves and high-flying athleticism.

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