Gaither bracing for Super Mario

OWINGS MILLS -- Jared Gaither has spent the majority of this week studying the repertoire of Houston Texans star defensive end Mario Williams as he prepares for the charge of one of the NFL's elite pass rushers. This is the sort of encounter that can define a young offensive tackle, and Gaither has already proven once that he's up to the challenge at the collegiate level.

When Gaither was a University of Maryland freshman in 2005, he watched as Williams racked up sacks for North Carolina State as the blue-chip defensive lineman abused tackle Stephon Heyer.

So, Gaither volunteered to switch positions from left tackle to right tackle to take on the eventual top overall pick in the NFL draft.

The bold gambit worked as Gaither stonewalled Williams for the remainder of the contest without a sack.

"I felt like that game kind of put me on the map to a lot of people," Gaither said. "You can't be afraid of challenges, and I'm not. You have to be determined to shut guys down.

"You can't be timid out there. You go out and you be aggressive and treat a guy like that like anybody else."

Three years later, Gaither will be put to the test again as the Ravens (1-0) prepare to take on the Texans (0-1) as he makes his fourth NFL start.

Naturally, Williams said he didn't recall the unsuccessful previous matchup with Gaither.

"I really don't remember a lot of individual stuff that happened with anyone, actually," Williams said in a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "I try to forget about old stuff like that."

Williams' present is far superior to his past. He recorded 14 sacks last season to rank third in the league.

In a 37-18 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers last week, he displayed that last year's breakthrough is no fluke as he posted two sacks, six tackles, three quarterback pressures and one forced fumble.

"A young me," said four-time Pro Bowl Ravens defensive end Trevor Pryce when asked who Williams reminds him of. "No, I see someone a lot bigger and stronger than everyone else. I don't know if he's necessarily faster but he's way bigger.

"It's almost unfair when you put a guy that size at defensive end and not inside where you can control him. I'm glad I ain't got to block him, I'm telling you that."

It's an apt comparison to Pryce, according to Ravens coach John Harbaugh.

"He's got long arms, he's got heavy hands, he's very athletic," Harbaugh said. "He kind of reminds you of Trevor in some ways, just a tremendous football player.

"That's going to be an interesting matchup, two young, up-and-coming players. Mario, obviously, is ahead of Jared in terms of experience and stuff, so it will be a good challenge for Jared."

Former Texans general manager Charley Casserly drew heavy criticism for bypassing running back Reggie Bush to pick Williams first overall.

Now, the decision looks especially prudent since Williams is excelling as one of the league's best young defenders. He has recorded one sack or more in seven of his past eight games with three games with more than one sack.

"I think it was very difficult for him, but players like that are the ones that become great players," said Texans coach Gary Kubiak, drawing parallels to the harsh treatment former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway faced as a rookie. "The growing pains he's had to go through, the things that he's had to endure, are what made him better. I think you'll see him play a long, long time and be very effective."

At 6-foot-9, 330 pounds, Gaither has the requisite size and athle ticism as the replacement for retired All-Pro offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden.

In a 17-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals last week, Gaither held Bengals defensive end Frostee Rucker to no sacks and no quarterback hits.

Williams is an outstanding athlete who blends size, speed and has a set of emerging moves, including a formidable spin and bull rush. At 6-6, 283 pounds, Williams is a sculpted football player with off-the-chart workout numbers.

"I just think he's a physical specimen playing that defensive end position who can really cause havoc coming off that edge," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "If you don't get a block on him to slow him down, your offense is going to have a rough day."

In 17 career games, Williams has 20 1/2 sacks. Although he was snubbed for Pro Bowl recognition last year, he's being recognized around the league for his talents.

"He has good balance and he's a good player," Gaither said. "I'm looking forward to colliding with him, and I hope I have a good game."

One thing the Ravens are preparing for is that the Texans may opt to occasionally flop his defensive ends, moving former Ravens starter Tony Weaver, so that Williams can rush against Adam Terry or Willie Anderson on the left side.

That's why it's critical that rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, who wasn't sacked last week in his starting debut, be cognizant of how long he's in the pocket and utilize a quick release.

Otherwise, it could be a long day against Williams.

"We're going to do things to take care of him, we realize he's a good player," Flacco said. "Their defense plays hard, and they'll try to get after us, but we're going to have things to answer that. I'm going to stand back there like normal and get the ball out of my hands when it needs to be."

Because of Williams' prowess, Gaither is likely to have chip-blocking assistance. Still, there are likely to be several one-on-one clashes that will test him severely.

"Gaither has a huge job, man, and he's up for it," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "Gaither has a big job on his hands this week. He played well last week and he's one of the guys we're counting on.

"Those tackles pretty much dictate what a quarterback can do back there. He's going to accept the challenge, and I think he's going to do pretty good."


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