Deep In Trenches

Talented, Tightknit Group Of Defensive Tackles Gives Ravens Many Options

August 10, 2009|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,

At times during training camp at McDaniel College in Westminster, the Ravens' first defense has featured Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata at defensive tackle.

And Justin Bannan and Dwan Edwards.

And Brandon McKinney and Kelly Talavou.

The ever-changing personnel is a hallmark of the Ravens' wildly unpredictable defense. But perhaps more pointedly, it's a testament to the kind of depth the unit enjoys when it comes to plugging the interior of the defensive line.

Gregg and Ngata are the expected starters, but Bannan made 15 regular-season and three playoff starts alongside Ngata last year when Gregg and Edwards were lost for the season because of injuries. And Edwards made 13 starts in 2007 while filling in for an injured Trevor Pryce.

"All of us are starters," Ngata said. "We all start in different packages. ... We all believe that we're starters, and we all feel like we can make plays at different times."

The defensive tackles are a close-knit group. Ngata and Talavou are Polynesian and roommates during training camp, Gregg and Bannan have Big 12 roots in Oklahoma and Colorado, respectively, and McKinney and Lamar Divens both played for the San Diego Chargers before joining the Ravens.

During practice, Edwards could be matched up with Ngata, and Bannan could find himself alongside McKinney, while Gregg and Talavou will attack on another play.

Competition is fierce but friendly.

"I just think we have a special group of guys, a group of guys who take extreme pride in their work and are going to show up every day and work hard," Bannan said. "I don't think that can be said for every D-line in the NFL. We're all friends. There's no bickering or anything like that. I think we all work extremely well together. And we all have a foundation of hard work."

With so much talent at one position, one might think defensive line coach Clarence Brooks has trouble finding snaps and minutes to keep his players happy. But Brooks said the group has been receptive to the way he has divided repetitions.

"Because they are who they are and because of the types of players that they are, we are comfortable with them," he said. "They have all been on the field, and they have all played for us. We know they're ready to go into any kind of situation. So we feel good that hopefully we can get reps for everybody and rotate as we see fit and as the defense allows and keep as many good, fresh players on the field as we possibly can."

The defense was lucky to have depth at defensive tackle last year, when Gregg was sidelined by microfracture knee surgery and Edwards by a bulging disc in the neck.

Bannan, who had made 10 starts in his first seven seasons, replaced Gregg and contributed to a unit that ranked second in the NFL in total yards and passing yards allowed and third in running yards surrendered. Yet despite finishing seventh on the team in tackles, Bannan is listed on the team's depth chart behind Gregg - a situation he is comfortable with.

"You can't take a guy's job when he's hurt," Bannan said. "I filled in for Kelly when he was the starter, and I did the best I could. Kelly's coming back from injury, and it's his deal. And it's not even really like that between Kelly, me, Haloti, anyone. Interior-wise, we have a rotation and all of us will give all we've got."

Because of the physical nature of the defensive line, Brooks makes sure each player understands the responsibilities of the tackle and end positions.

"They all learn the packages, they all learn the defense, they all learn all three positions because you never know when the situation is going to come up where you're going to have to switch a guy or play a guy more here or a guy more there. That's something they have to be up on the whole time," he said.

That's how Edwards could fill in at end when Pryce sat out 11 of 16 contests in 2007 because of a broken left wrist and torn pectoral. That kind of versatility is what makes defensive tackle a position of strength for the Ravens.

"We're deep, and no matter who we have in there, we're going to be able to make plays," Edwards said. "I'm just excited about the opportunity that we have as a D-line to be one of the best in the NFL this year."


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