Ravens' new-look d-line learning on the job

OWINGS MILLS -- It was a classic case of paralysis by analysis for massive rookie Haloti Ngata, mirroring a mild epidemic of hesitation that has alternately stricken the majority of the defensive line. For the Baltimore Ravens' prize first-round draft pick, his first NFL experience against the Philadelphia Eagles a week ago wasn't a prime example of how to play defensive tackle.

Ngata was understandably unsure of his movements, and it showed. The 6-foot-4, 340-pounder often found himself on the ground.

Emotions, especially nerves, and thinking instead of reacting, defined Ngata's debut one week after suffering a mild knee sprain in a scrimmage against the Washington Redskins.

"I need to relax because I was definitely nervous," said Ngata, a former consensus All-American at Oregon. "I was focused too much on what the play was and not enough on my technique. I was kind of thinking about my knee a little bit and I wasn't exploding off the ball.

"I was catching the block instead of firing into my man. Now I have a game underneath my pads, I'm more comfortable and I can really explode and get upfield."

As the Ravens prepare to play the Minnesota Vikings on Friday night at the Metrodome, Ngata's case isn't an isolated example of underperforming because of unfamiliarity.

With the major exception of penetrating, blue-collar nose guard Kelly Gregg, the defensive line has yet to cause much of a ruckus through two preseason games.

The Ravens signed four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Trevor Pryce to a five-year, $25 million contract that included $10 million in guaranteed money. Plus, they drafted Ngata with the 12th overall pick and signed former Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Justin Bannan to a four-year, $8.1 million deal.

Midway through the preseason, defensive line coach Clarence Brooks still expects to see a significant return on those investments.

"It's starting to smooth out," Brooks said. "The way we performed in the first preseason game was okay. The second game was a little bit better. We look to be better this game.

"They've been working together for the past four weeks, so some familiarity is starting to come. Trevor and Justin have realized what changes they needed to make and are doing things differently in our scheme. They're picking things up."

Gregg has regularly burst through blocks to register five tackles, and Bannan has contributed seven stops along with a pass deflection.

Rush end Terrell Suggs has four tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery, but hasn't consistently burst into the backfield.

Pryce has been credited with only one tackle, and Ngata has yet to hit stride or hear his name announced on the loud speaker following a tackle.

Quiet and studious, the 22-year-old Ngata represents raw material for Brooks to mold.

"Haloti is like a clean slate," Brooks said. "He's got a great football IQ. I think he was nervous last week. He's a proud kid. He knows the deal.

"He's a first-round pick, and he knows all the eyes are on him. He's very aware of that. Health-wise, I think he's so much better. I think he was a little apprehensive next week and now I think he's ready to go."

The entire front seven struggled to contain elusive Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb in the open field a week ago. He engineered a touchdown drive by beating the Ravens to the perimeter and delivering a shovel pass to running back Correll Buckhalter for a 48-yard gain that set up a score. He also avoided Pryce on a few near-sacks.

Reserve linemen Dwan Edwards and Aubrayo Franklin are off to much faster starts than the newcomers.
"I think we're seeing flashes of what can happen, but they really haven't cut us loose yet because it's preseason," Pryce said. "Sometimes, the offense dictates the pace. By the time we get to the first game, we'll be in full swing."

The learning curve of picking up defensive coordinator Rex Ryan's complicated, aggressive schemes is considered a factor in the slow development of a unit that the Ravens hope they've upgraded following the free-agent defections of end Tony Weaver and defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu.

"If we're going to be the defense we want to be, it's got to be great upfront," Bannan said. "We expect a high standard. It's going to get better and better as we get used to the defense."

Gregg has been the one aspect of the starting defensive line that has looked comfortable during the preseason, especially since the former prep heavyweight wrestling champion has gone back to his natural nose guard position.

"Kelly might be as natural and as good a defensive tackle as I've ever seen with the things he can do with leverage and his wrestling background," Pryce said. "He does things that my past coaches have tried to get me to do for years and I can't."

Bannan, a high-energy, gritty interior lineman, has drawn a few comparisons to Gregg because of a slight resemblance and a similar approach.

"I've heard a few funny jokes with people asking if I was Rex Ryan's second illegitimate kid on the Ravens," Bannan said. "I think Kelly Gregg is one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL, so that's fine with me."

Meanwhile, the team is banking on a revitalized Suggs, who has 30 ½ career sacks but slumped to a career-low eight sacks last season. The 6-foot-3, 270-pound Suggs has gained 15 pounds of muscle and dropped his body-fat percentage to 10 percent.

"I didn't know how good of an athlete Terrell was until I got here," Pryce said. "He has a lot of freedom on that other side and he's going to make a lot of plays."

The defensive line will be severely tested against the Vikings' accomplished line, which features center Matt Birk, offensive guard Steve Hutchinson and offensive tackle Bryant "Mount" McKinnie.

Hutchinson is the highest-paid guard in NFL history having signed a landmark seven-year, $49 million contract to leave the Seattle Seahawks this spring.

"This is going to be a great, great test for us," Brooks said.

As Ngata takes his initial steps in the NFL as an instant starter taking his knocks from veteran blockers, Pryce expects him to eventually assume control of the line of scrimmage to spearhead a resurgent defensive line.

"When he clicks, it's going to click and people are going to get hurt," Pryce said. "He's very mature for a rookie. He doesn't say too much, but he doesn't have that wide-eyed look I had as a rookie."
 

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times


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