There are days the aches and pains Haloti Ngata has absorbed have him wishing he could stay in bed. But when he makes his way to the Ravens' training facility in Owings Mills, the defensive tackle seems to shed the soreness - and about 15 years.
Before practice, Ngata, 24, can often be found with the quarterbacks, tossing the football with them.
Last week, Ngata - who has been hampered by a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee - stood in as a running back for the scout team. After he hauled in a deep pass from assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, Ngata pretended to make a run to the end zone before eventually turning back and flipping the football to an assistant.
Ngata's body might have aged, but his inner child has not.
"I'm not an old veteran, but I'm kind of a veteran now," he said. "I'm more comfortable around the team. I try to joke around with them and have fun. It [stinks] if it's all boring."
Defensive tackle Justin Bannan said Ngata is a regular comedian in defensive meetings.
"He's like a big kid out there," Bannan said with a chuckle. "He'll make you laugh."
Opposing running backs have not enjoyed Ngata nearly as much. Ever since the Ravens used the 12th overall pick in the 2006 draft on the 6-foot-4, 345-pound defensive tackle, Ngata has been part of a run-stopping unit that has not surrendered 100 yards to a rusher in the past 19 games.
After an impressive rookie season during which he recorded 51 tackles, three deflected passes, an interception and a sack, Ngata exceeded those numbers last year with 94 tackles, three sacks, two deflected passes and a forced fumble.
Ngata credits his development to working alongside familiar faces in defensive line coach Clarence Brooks and linemates Kelly Gregg, Trevor Pryce, Bannan and Dwan Edwards, and to a third season in Ryan's defensive alignments.
"Just knowing the playbook and not having to worry about it, I can just work on my technique and just go out there and play," Ngata said. "I'm not thinking too much anymore. I'm just going out and playing now, so I feel like I've grown a lot."
General manager Ozzie Newsome told Ryan that no defensive tackle had completed a better stretch than the final seven games of last season for Ngata (43 tackles, 26 of them solo, and two sacks), who played on a sprained left knee in the last four contests. For his efforts, Ngata was picked by USA Today to its All-Joe Team, reserved for players who are invaluable to their teams but did not make the Pro Bowl.
"I think that's a big indicator," Ryan said when asked whether Ngata was capable of going to the Pro Bowl this season.
A trip to Hawaii, however, isn't a priority yet for Ngata, who has worked hard to overcome the problematic right knee he sprained July 27. Ngata, who played in his first preseason game - the Ravens' finale - Thursday night, said the knee is structurally sound but is weakest when he is moving from side to side.
"It's been really frustrating," he said of his slow recovery. "It's tough seeing the guys work real hard and be tired and be sore. I just want to be there with them. ... I've been trying to force myself out there, but I guess the good thing is that the coaches are watching out for me."
The coaches have had to tighten the reins on Ngata since the team was forced to place Edwards on injured reserve Tuesday with a back injury. Ngata said he tried to participate in practice but the staff held him back.
"I do feel like I need to get back because our [defensive] line is already thin," Ngata said before the Ravens acquired defensive end Marques Douglas for two draft picks Wednesday. "I just need to get back out there and help out the D-line."
Ngata promised to be ready for the team's season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. His return will be a welcome sight for his teammates and coaches.
"The guy's a beast," Bannan said. "He's a physically imposing man who is very athletic and smart on top of that. He really has the full complement of weapons."
Season opener: Bengals @Ravens, Sunday, 1 p.m.
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