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Ravens Get Lots Of Milage Out Of In-between, Hybrid Defenders

April 24, 2009|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,ken.murray@baltsun.com

Before the 1997 draft, the Ravens dispatched defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis to Tallahassee, Fla., to check out an undersized Florida State defensive end named Peter Boulware.

Lewis came back with an inspired scouting report and a novel suggestion: Make Boulware a pass-rushing linebacker in the Ravens' 3-4 defense.

It didn't take long before Ravens' scouts were looking at smaller, quicker defensive ends in a new light. Boulware, the fourth pick in the draft, was a four-time Pro Bowl selection and all-time sacks leader for the team.

Lewis, the Cincinnati Bengals' coach who worked for the Pittsburgh Steelers before joining the Ravens in 1996, wasn't the first to see the merit of moving a smaller lineman to a two-point stance. But he was the first to bring the idea to Baltimore.

Since then, the Ravens have uncovered a wealth of hybrid defensive end-linebackers - "tweeners" - who are at the heart of a multifront defense that is hard to decipher and harder to block. It's a list that includes outside linebackers Terrell Suggs, Jarret Johnson, Antwan Barnes and Jameel McClain from the current roster, all of whom played on the line in college.

More are on the way. Supply might even satisfy demand in this year's draft, which is loaded with players who project from defensive end to outside linebacker. Probably a third of the league's 32 teams will run a base 3-4 defense this season.

General manager Ozzie Newsome remembers Boulware, now retired, as a defensive end who "had his hand in the dirt and just rushed - I mean, just [rushed] up the field every play."

Newsome got the coaches involved in the scouting and evaluation process because it made for a smoother transition to the field. And it has been invaluable in recognizing how the team gets the most from each player.

"In that our coaches get so much involved with the draft, they take the information that we have and go work guys out, then come back and say, 'This guy can fit our scheme in this way,' " Newsome said.

The proof is in the pass rush, or, as might be the case, the zone drops.

Johnson, a six-year veteran, had the most distinctive transition. He was a three-technique defensive tackle at Alabama, weighing 285 pounds, and had played with his hand down since eighth grade.

Drafted in 2003, Johnson filled in across the line until 2005, when then-coordinator Rex Ryan began experimenting with him at linebacker. By 2007, having dropped 20 pounds, Johnson replaced departing free agent Adalius Thomas at outside linebacker. He has started the past 35 games, including the postseason, and has been one of the team's most productive players on defense.

Eric DeCosta, the Ravens' director of player personnel, said the team doesn't look for "tweeners," but for the biggest, fastest players who have a Ravens mentality.

"To me, it starts with the motor," DeCosta said. "They've got to have a Ravens-type motor.

"In looking at the best players, size - while critical - is not as important as other components in predicting really good players. Take Jameel [McClain]. He was too small to be a defensive end [in the NFL]. Jarret wouldn't be a defensive tackle here, but you can move those guys around because they have a good motor and are fast."

Intelligence also is an important factor. Being able to adjust to different positions requires a quick mind, one that can assimilate information easily and quickly.

Depending on the defensive concept, players carry different values to different teams.

"Antwan Barnes," DeCosta said, "would be a left defensive end in Indianapolis. In our scheme, he'd get killed at the point of attack" in that position.

The change in coordinators from Ryan to Greg Mattison figures to have minimal effect on the way the Ravens' defense operates in 2009.

"Adjust and adapt," DeCosta said. "The biggest thing is communication. [Defensive line coach] Clarence Brooks has been here a long time. [Linebackers coach] Vic Fangio can help in the transition. Greg will do a phenomenal job. He has a really good grasp of personnel."

Among the most intriguing of this year's hybrids are Brian Orakpo of Texas, Aaron Maybin of Ellicott City and Penn State, Everette Brown of Florida State, Larry English of Northern Illinois and Connor Barwin of Cincinnati.

Most experts believe Orakpo can play defensive end in a 4-3 scheme or outside linebacker in a 3-4. Maybin, Brown, English and Barwin project to outside linebacker. Of those, Barwin has the most versatility.

Barwin played tight end and defensive end for the Bearcats. At 6 feet 4 and 256 pounds, he fits the tweener category perfectly.

"The biggest thing with him, he's a football player, No. 1," said Joe Hortiz, the Ravens' director of college scouting. "Some people say he's going to be a great tight end, and I do believe he can be a good tight end.

"But the way he plays the game, he's got the Raven mentality on defense. He plays hard, and I think he can be an outside linebacker. It's going to take time because he hasn't spent any time there, but I think he can make the transition to outside linebacker or play a 4-3 defensive end."

Ravens hope to buck NFL trend of drafting bust at No. 26 PG 8

NFL DRAFT

When: Saturday (rounds 1-2, 4 p.m.), Sunday (rounds 3-7, 10 a.m.)

TV: ESPN, NFL Network

Ravens' picks:

1st round: 26

2nd round: 57

3rd round: 88

4th round: 123

5th round: 162

6th round: 198

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