Rookies upholding Ravens' LB tradition

WESTMINSTER -- Antwan Barnes' forearm shiver and right shoulder connected squarely with unsuspecting punter Sav Rocca, a violent blow that separated him from his helmet as he flailed helplessly into the air. The Baltimore Ravens' rookie outside linebacker didn't inflict all of his punishment on the Philadelphia Eagles' special teams.

He utilized an aggressive upfield pass rush to deck quarterback Kelly Holcomb for a sack along with two other pressures.

And Barnes wasn't alone in upholding the Ravens' rich linebacker tradition as fellow rookie Prescott Burgess notched a sack of his own and led the defense with six tackles during a 29-3 victory Monday night at M&T Bank Stadium. Burgess, Barnes and promising undrafted free agent linebacker Edgar Jones are aware that they're pledging an exclusive defensive fraternity.

"With the older guys, you're trying to prove something to them and to yourselves," Burgess said. "They don't know if you deserve to be on this team or not. A lot of us proved to them that we can go out there and take care of business when they're not on the field."

Barnes' crunch of Rocca, a 6-foot-4, 265-pound former Australian rules football star, rapidly became a fixture on highlight programs with the encounter immortalized on YouTube.

With the versatility and instincts of Burgess, who has been learning both the Jack and Sam linebacker spots, and the progression of Jones, a converted defensive end from Southeast Missouri, the rookie linebacker class made a strong first impression.

"I want to see that promise," Pro Bowl linebacker Bart Scott said. "We have a way of grooming young talent. They represented themselves very well. There was a lot of emotions going on.

"They had a chance to make a lot of mental errors, but they didn't make a lot. They acquitted themselves very well. You can't coach effort, tempo, speed and desire."

Barnes appears to have those qualities in heavy supply. Now that he's recovered from a sprained ankle, the 6-foot-1, 240-pound fourth-round pick is displaying the 4.45 speed he flashed at the NFL scouting combine.

After going winless during his senior year at Florida International, which was marred by a high-profile brawl with the University of Miami, Barnes was especially eager to hit the field and someone else.

"All I wanted to do was show I could play," said Barnes, who registered 23 career sacks. "I've been waiting for this for 23 years for this opportunity. I just wanted to go full-speed and show the coaches we can handle every situation."

Barnes' hit on Rocca drew the ire of the Eagles' in-house broadcasters with one exclaiming over the airwaves: "That's a cheap shot. That's unnecessary. You don't take shots at kickers. That's garbage."

However, Barnes isn't the first Ravens linebacker to be accused of overly nasty play.

"I was just playing football," Barnes said. "If you're out there wearing pads, I'm going to knock you down."

At 6-3, 240 pounds, Burgess is building a reputation as a hard-hitter and for having sound instincts. The sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan has has been given more responsibility than the other rookie linebackers.

"Prescott is playing two legit positions, and learning the dime position on third down, too," linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald said. "He's on an accelerated path.

"He's going to have an opportunity, but he's got to earn it. I'm pleased so far, but we've got to keep the hammer down."

Burgess recorded two tackles for losses Monday, demonstrating his strength on a blitz by grabbing Holcomb by his jersey and flipping him onto the turf for a sack. He also had a tackle on special teams, an area where he and Barnes are expected to excel.

"The other linebackers said I played like a Ravens' linebacker, so they gave me a thumb's up," Burgess said. "They are known as a great linebacking group, and I'm just trying to be a part of it.

"I made a lot of plays. I'm just trying to be versatile. I'm just out here trying to join the crew as a Baltimore Raven."

An All-Big Ten Conference honorable-mention selection, Burgess' draft stock dipped due to a 4.85 clocking at the combine. Despite 171 career tackles and four interceptions, he lasted until the 207th overall selection.

"I'm a bad tester," Burgess said. "Once you get me on the field, I'm a football player and I've got football speed."

Burgess made it clear from the first day of training camp that he plays with intensity. He decked franchise running back Willis McGahee on his first carry in a non-contact drill, making him fumble and fall to the ground.

"It was no big deal, but people keep bringing that up," Burgess said. "I just want everybody to know that No. 54 is out there."

A native of Warren, Ohio, Burgess arrived at Michigan as a 210-pound prep All-American safety. Through the training table and the Wolverines' weight room, he gained 30 pounds in four years.

"I just kept eating good and lifting weights," Burgess said. "I got too big to be a safety anymore."

Now, Burgess, Barnes and Jones, a Division I-AA All-American from Southeast Missouri who had a relatively quiet game with three tackles compared to his rookie colleagues, are making a more difficult transition.

Playing in the NFL is one thing, but playing linebacker for the Ravens involves a higher standard.

"We talk about that a lot," Burgess said. "The three of us are real tight, and we've been hanging around each other since minicamp. We're the jokesters of the rookie class.

"I've got two good friends there. We talk about playing for each other on the field. As you can see, we all made a lot of plays and we're trying to continue that Ravens tradition."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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