Top of the line


From starters to backups, unit among NFL's best

Defensive excellence

August 06, 2008|By MIKE PRESTON

John Harbaugh had been the Ravens' head coach for only about a month, which was long enough for him to look through some of the team's game film from last season.

One thing was constant. Harbaugh loved how the defensive line played the game. Now, he has gotten an up-close and personal look, and the view is even better.

If you're stuck in the worst part of town, defensive tackles Haloti Ngata, Kelly Gregg and defensive end Trevor Pryce are the guys you want with you.

But even their backups are good. Behind Ngata and Gregg is Justin Bannan, whose biceps give new meaning to the word "bulging." Pryce's backup is Dwan Edwards. He's not in Pryce's class, but he is the perfect stopgap player.

The Ravens are going to need a team effort to win this season, but the defensive line has to carry the team. There are few better in the NFL.

The Ravens have the perfect blend. They have great run stoppers. They have a guy in the middle who can collapse the pocket on the pass rush. They have several hybrid players who can play multiple positions, and they have depth.

So, although the Ravens' offense has been inefficient at times in training camp, part of the reason is that an inexperienced offensive line is getting manhandled.

Very few teams can run against the Ravens. They have too much beef and brute strength up front.

Gregg is underrated by the general football public but respected within NFL coaching circles. He's a leverage guy with outstanding technique. Ngata, in his third year, could have the breakout Pro Bowl season. By the end of last season, he was not just occupying two blockers, but he was also getting penetration and interrupting plays in the backfield.

But what stands out about both guys is their unselfishness. They don't mind doing the dirty work holding up blockers so linebackers Ray Lewis and Bart Scott can make tackles.

That's what makes Pryce so valuable. Last year, it seemed as though the Ravens were whining because Pryce missed most of the season with an assortment of injuries.

But he's another guy who does a lot of dirty work. On pass-rushing situations, Pryce will draw the double team, allowing linebackers-defensive ends such as Scott, Terrell Suggs and Antwan Barnes to draw one-on-one blocks.

With Pryce in the lineup, the Ravens had 60 sacks in 2006. Without him, they had only 32 last year.

"Teams could turn their pass protection toward me and Terrell last year," Scott said. "With Trevor back, that can't happen. It's going to free us up more."

Pryce, though, has played the run better than anyone expected. He reported to training camp in great shape, and despite being a 12-year veteran, he hasn't complained one bit about Harbaugh's tough camp.

One potential problem area with the Ravens is age. Gregg has been in the league only three years fewer than Pryce. The constant pounding wears down players.

But in Bannan, the Ravens have a bigger version of Gregg, and he could be a starter on other teams. Edwards is in his fifth year. He knows the Ravens' system. Between the two of them, they can spell the starters for long stretches of time.

On the outside, the Ravens have versatility and flexibility. Suggs is a great pass rusher who has learned how to drop into coverage the past couple of years. Scott and Barnes are just as versatile.

They can bring heat on the outside as an end/outside linebacker or cover a tight end or running back in the flat. The Ravens have a lot of options and can give teams a lot of different looks.

"Years ago, calling a player a tweener was a bad word," said Mike Pettine, the Ravens' outside linebackers coach. "But we like the hybrid type, the ones who might not be big enough or fast enough but have a passion to play. We want guys who play like a Raven."

The Ravens have a bunch of them. Of all the guys on their front line, only Ngata and Pryce are near prototypes. But once the ball is snapped, it's a fearless, strong and relentless group, one of the best in the NFL.

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