Ravens' Hartwell stepping out of the shadows

OWINGS MILLS - Ed Hartwell barely blinks, twitching slightly as his cleats grind up the grass underneath him. The Baltimore Ravens' inside linebacker doesn't want anything to interrupt his stare into the Cincinnati Bengals' backfield. Bursting past the center, guard and fullback, Hartwell rapidly locates the target of his blitz: quarterback Jon Kitna.

Uncoiling his stocky frame, Hartwell unloads on Kitna for a sack in the second quarter of Sunday's 34-26 loss. Hartwell would strike Kitna again in the fourth quarter for his first multi-sack game of his career.

It was an unsubtle reminder that the Baltimore linebacking corps features more than perennial All-Pro Ray Lewis, a Hall of Fame middle linebacker in position coach Mike Singletary and Pro Bowl outside linebacker Peter Boulware. "My goals aren't real complicated: I want to be a football player, a great linebacker and a gladiator for the Baltimore Ravens," Hartwell said. "I want to beat you up, get in your head and settle it man to man. If you don't want to be great, you're cheating your team."

Since being drafted in the fourth round two years ago, Hartwell has emerged as a blue-collar complement to Lewis' star power.

It's befitting that the athletic teams at Western Illinois, Hartwell's alma mater, are nicknamed the Leathernecks for he has been an overshadowed soldier on this defense. When Lewis went down with a season-ending shoulder injury last year, Hartwell became the first player besides Lewis to lead the team in tackles. Beyond collecting 191 tackles, Hartwell also had to assume a vocal leadership role.

Once Lewis returned to health, Hartwell was challenged by the coaching staff to not take a step backward. Hartwell ranks second in tackles behind Lewis with 58, leading the team with two forced fumbles.

"It has been an interesting progression for Eddie," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He has to go up and down. I know he would like to do more, but he knows that Ray is the recognized leader and within that context he has been excellent. The last two games were the soundest Ed has played."

In his last two starts, Hartwell has a combined 14 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.

His production hasn't dipped much considering Lewis is often the first defender to sprint to the football. Lewis' presence also took Hartwell off the field on third downs.

"We're two different types of leaders, but I didn't take a step back," Hartwell said. "Ray's more vocal and I'm more of a leader by example." Before the season, Sports Illustrated selected the 6-foot-1, 250-pound Hartwell as the linebacker most adept at stuffing an isolation play on 4th-and-1.

It was a salute to a throwback linebacker who grew up in Las Vegas idolizing Singletary. Now, he frequently visits Singletary's office to soak up knowledge.

Hartwell originally became a starter next to Lewis when defensive coordinator Mike Nolan implemented a 3-4 scheme before last season. "Had we stayed in the 4-3, I think Ed could have played the position Jamie Sharper played," Ravens director of player personnel Phil Savage said. "He's a better athlete than I think he was given credit for when he came into the league."

In terms of mileage gained from a draft pick expended on a dominant player at the Division I-AA level, the Ravens are pleased with their post-Super Bowl investment. Hartwell was originally brought in to play special teams and act as insurance in case Lewis was injured. He had 512 career tackles in three seasons at Western Illinois after transferring from Wisconsin.

"We weren't really looking for an inside linebacker, but Ed was the highest-rated and best football player left for our team," Savage said. "We're certainly glad we got him. He's a legitimate NFL player. He's a good person and he always gives an all-out effort."

Beyond the blitzes, Hartwell doesn't lack for aggression. He has developed a penchant for delivering a running commentary between snaps to opponents.

"I don't cuss on or off the field, but you can play with people's minds without cussing," Hartwell said. "I don't get personal or pull low blows, but, like Muhammad Ali, I'm going to talk trash."

Hartwell acknowledged that Baltimore will contend with a formidable rushing game on Sunday against the Denver Broncos. Led by elusive running back Clinton Portis' 596 yards and four touchdowns, the Broncos rank third in rushing in the league. Baltimore ranks 10th in run defense.

"Portis is a pretty good back, but we have a great defense with great run-stoppers," Hartwell said. "We hunt every play. You run from us. We don't run from you."

NOTES: Although Tuesday is the players' designated day off, backup quarterback Chris Redman reported to work to get in a throwing workout as groundskeepers and other office personnel acted as his volunteer receivers. It's unclear if rookie starter Kyle Boller will be listed as questionable or probable on today's injury report with a mild sprain to his left, non-throwing shoulder.

A questionable listing, a 50-50 estimate of availability for Sunday's contest, would increase Redman's practice repetitions.

Baltimore anticipates Boller being able to play.

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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