Ravens pacing sackmaster McCrary

It's a brutal chess match. Combat fought with the mind as much as with forearms, fists, athleticism and sheer grit. It's also the violent world that Baltimore Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary thrived in for a decade until chronic knee problems interrupted his assault on quarterbacks. The constant attack of pass rushing is what McCrary loves. Relentless is an adjective often attached to his name, yet his health has become his chief obstacle.

Now, McCrary is playing a reduced role as the Ravens hope he becomes a designated sacker again. His body may be declining, but his spirit hasn't quit.

"I try to physically dominate my man," said McCrary, who had two sacks in a win over the Denver Broncos on Monday after missing training camp to protect his aching knees.

"As small as I am, that's my main objective. I'll try anything. I never stop. That's my best attribute. My goal is to make the other guy quit."

Besides all of the rough stuff and wear and tear on his body, there's a thinking side to pass rushing that McCrary, 32, has embraced to overcome a lack of ideal size. At 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, he's actually small for his position in today's super-sized NFL.

The Ravens' new 3-4 defense requires him to line up across from hefty blockers. Yet, by being creative, the former Pro Bowler tries to set tackles and quarterbacks up for a fall.

"Mike is the complete package as a pass rusher, and he's got the heart," Ravens defensive line coach Rex Ryan said. "He has developed quite a pass-rushing repertoire. Everyone talked about Nolan Ryan's fastball, but he also had the curve ball and the off-speed pitches.

"Michael's bread-and-butter is he hits you so hard initially with the bull rush, but he also slaps you with other things. He fools the offensive linemen."

Has McCrary lost his fastball? Ravens coach Brian Billick still acknowledges McCrary's rare motor, but is being extremely cautious with his venerable, gimpy lineman.

The Ravens held McCrary to 44 snaps against the Broncos in his most extended action this season.

"That's got to be the upper limit," Billick said. "If we're going to get the year out of Michael that I think we can, we've got to be prudent about the opportunities we give him."

Intensity has always been at the core of McCrary's job description. He made his NFL reputation by chasing the football with zest.

"Mike practices like he plays, 100 miles per hour," running back Jamal Lewis said.

It takes a lot of traits to excel in the trenches. Sometimes, it's all about will. McCrary has been known to crawl on his hands and knees to reach his destination.

"You can never count Mike out," defensive end Adalius Thomas said. "Somehow, he's going to get involved. You always have to have one magic move. His is his motor."

Sometimes, it's about experience. In 88 NFL starts with two Pro Bowl selections, McCrary has 71 sacks. He collected 7.5 through 10 games last year before undergoing season-ending knee surgery. The 3-4 presents another challenge along with fighting the deterioration of his knees.

"There are going to be advantages and disadvantages for me, but we've got to make it work," McCrary said. "We've got no choice. I'm not worried. I just need to get healthy and stay healthy."

Two years ago, McCrary led the line with 103 tackles. His two sacks and a forced fumble keyed the Ravens' victory over the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.

In 1999, McCrary had 11.5 sacks, one year after he set a club record with 14.5. Outside linebacker Peter Boulware eclipsed that mark with 15 last year. This year, he has just 11 tackles.

The Ravens thought highly enough of McCrary's methods that they awarded him a six-year contract extension for $24 million with a signing bonus of $3.6 million. That also cleared up necessary salary cap space for the draft.

Sometimes, it's about technique and strategy.

McCrary hits tackles hard with a bull rush: a straight-ahead, two-hand punch to the chest. By lowering his center of gravity, he pushes blockers backward with superior leverage.

"It sounds crazy, but Mike's bread-and-butter is the bull rush," Ryan said. "Usually, that's a move for a more physically gifted guy. If you can't take it, he's going to give it to you all day long."

McCrary said he has just a few moves, liberally employing the rip, swim and spin techniques.

 The rip involves shooting an arm between the tackle's armpit and ribcage, lifting the player up on his toes to lose balance.

On the swim move, McCrary grabs the offensive lineman's shoulder pads with one hand and pulling the player behind him. Using the opposite arm in a classic overhand swimming stroke allows him to keep running without breaking stride.

For his spin, McCrary jab steps one way, then does a 360-degree turn with his body in the opposite direction to twist unencumbered around the tackle.

"I've got a whole book of moves, but the bull rush is where it all starts," McCrary said. "You've got to be physical."

McCrary said he can sense when an opponent lays down his sword before the game is over. Checkmate.

"Mike is so strong and fast," offensive guard Bennie Anderson said. "You stop to catch your breath and that's the moment he's gone, and it's a sack."

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