Kelly Gregg has true grit

WESTMINSTER -- Grappling at the line of scrimmage with grass and sweat flying through the air around him, Kelly Gregg shot two powerful hands into the chest of rookie center Robbie Felix. In a classic display of the leverage game that is Gregg's trademark, the Ravens nose guard planted his feet into the turf and drove Felix backward before aggressively disengaging to chase the football.

It was another encouraging sign for Gregg as he continues to recuperate from microfracture surgery on his left knee that sidelined him for an entire season last year.

With no evidence of swelling or any serious twinges of pain anymore, Gregg is forging an impressive comeback as he tries to reclaim his status as one of the most dominant run-stopping defensive linemen in the league.

The surgery, which involves an element of risk as surgeons literally drill holes into the bone to create scar tissue to replace an absence of cartilage in the joint, is regarded as a total success.

"It's tough to shut it d own for a year and bite the bullet, but I had to do it," Gregg said Wednesday morning in Westminster. "Maybe that will add a year or two to my career. It wasn't getting no better. So, I had to finally look myself in the mirror and get 'er done.

"It feels good, no swelling. At this time last year, I would lay in my bed at training camp and I couldn't even straighten out my leg. I still have my sea legs, but they're coming back. It's going good so far, but we ain't really hit nobody."

Other than a black sleeve snugly supporting his left knee, there aren't any visible signs of the potentially career-ending knee problem that Gregg experienced last season.

Gregg seems to be on the verge of overcoming an injury that had him contemplating retirement at one point last year.

It's a good thing, not to be too graphic, that Gregg is considered to be a good bleeder by his doctors.

The way the surgery works the knee joint has to bleed and scar properly for it to be an effective procedure. In Gregg's case, it knitted exceptionally well.

"They drill a hole in the bone to get it to bleed and, luckily, it worked," Gregg said. "Some guys are 50-50 and don't make it back. I had no problems."

The top sign that the surgery was effective is how Gregg is able to run and cut without incident.

He's able to squat heavy weights again to maintain his powerful center of gravity. And, as he noted, he hasn't gained any weight during his convalescence.

Plus, Gregg hasn't had to take time off to give his surgically-repaired knee a break.

"Sometimes in the past, I could feel my leg getting a little bigger and I'd have to take a rest," Gregg said. "I've never had to do that. I'm just going forward. Yeah, there's a little atrophy in there where it's not as strong as my right leg would be, but it's coming. I wouldn't get out here if I wasn't confident that I'm going to get through the training camp and feel good."

Now, he's intent on regaining his old form at his familiar position.

With Gregg back in the middle of the defense, an unmistakable old-school, folksy personality has returned to the Ravens as well. Gregg is one of the most intense, active nose guards in the league.

"He's one of those guys who has a presence in the huddle," defensive line coach Clarence Brooks said. "Kelly is so highly respected. I tell you what, he would intimidate me if I was a center. I wouldn't like playing against him at all."

Gregg is one of the most productive defensive linemen in recent NFL history.

During a decade in the NFL, the former University of Oklahoma standout has recorded 618 career tackles, 16 1/2 sacks, six fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.

Combining the technique and conditioning of a former heavyweight champion prep wrestler with the old-fashioned grit of an Oklahoma country boy, Gregg has a reputation for extreme toughness.

"You can see how much he loves the game," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "Kelly plays with a lot of joy. You can see that in him with how he runs around out here with a smile on his face."

There's also a lot of strategy involved in how he sets up offensive linemen, not just brute force.

"Kelly is probably the best technician between the guards in the league," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Kelly Gregg gives us a dominant run player inside. It's not like he's 350 pounds, either."

In the absence of the 6-foot, 315-pound Gregg last season, backup Justin Bannan thrived as a starter with a career-high 56 tackles, one sack and an interception.

Now, the Ravens have an impressive interior rotation between Gregg, Bannan, massive defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and 360-pound backup Brandon McKinney.

"We've got a nice rotation in there," Harbaugh said. "We've got to keep those guys healthy and get them ready to play, but I know [defensive coordinator Greg Mattison] is excited about that group and Clarence is, too."

Gregg is only two years removed from a career-high 111 tackle season that included a career-high 14 tackles and a sack against the Miami Dolphins.

From a mental standpoint, Gregg has had to learn to trust his knee again.

"If anything, it's in my mind, but it's nothing," Gregg said. "If it's going to go, it's going to go."

And Gregg is intent on reminding offensive linemen that he's still one of the roughest bull-rushers in the league.

It's been a long time coming for him, and Gregg is planning on making some noise this fall by crashing into people with his stocky frame.

"Yeah, a lot of people thought I was dead," Gregg said. "I'm out there to compete. I look at how much I really miss the game. This is fun for me."

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

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