In a game where defensive tackles are merely supposed to eat blocks and let the playmakers behind them do damage, Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg are masters of their craft.
Interior linemen don't need statistics to effectively do their job. Want a barometer on how a certain defensive tackle is performing? Check the tackle and sack totals of his linebackers.
But considering that Gregg's 111 stops this season pushed him over the century mark for the fourth time in five years, and considering that Ngata's three sacks and 94 tackles were both career highs, it came as a surprise that the duo was overlooked for most postseason honors.
Larry Weisman of USA Today is one person that was watching, as the veteran NFL reporter included Gregg and Ngata on his 16th annual "All-Joe Team."
Perhaps it is fitting that the squad is named after Joe Phillips, a defensive tackle with 14 years in the league, as the position - and the All-Joe Team - is defined by a lunch-pail work ethic and gritty disposition. Every year, Weisman sets out to honor the unsung players that do the little things to make their teammates better.
"What I'm looking for is guys that make their team's stars shine a little brighter, but sometimes get obscured by the very people whose lives they make easier," said Weisman. "I look at it somewhat like a Hollywood film. You might go to the movies to see a particular star, but if the rest of the cast isn't very good, then the picture probably isn't either."
While the storyline to the Ravens' 2007 campaign didn't necessarily turn out to be a fairy tale, Gregg and Ngata were key cogs in Baltimore's second-ranked run defense, which gave up a nightmarish 79.3 rush yards per game.
"We've always believed in stopping the run first, and then react to the pass," said Ngata, the Ravens' first-round draft pick (12th overall) in 2006. "That's what we do around here, and it's been pretty good."
Weisman believes that the passing game is part of what quelled the Pro Bowl chances for both linemen. The Ravens gave up an uncharacteristic 222.3 yards per game through the air while playing only three contests with their full starting secondary.
"[Gregg and Ngata] were probably hurt by the overall record the team had and the perception that they weren't a good defense, which was mostly a function of the injuries to corners and the vulnerability to the pass," Wiseman noted. "I don't remember any team that said they were going to run on the Ravens."
Gregg, who made his second consecutive All-Joe Team, was thought to be a near lock to make the trip to Hawaii. The eight-year veteran survived being cut from the Cincinnati Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles early in his career before maturing from Baltimore's practice squad into one of the top tackles in the league.
Because of his 6-foot size, Gregg may not be appreciated by the general public, but he is certainly a commodity to his teammates.
"He's our cornerstone," said linebacker Ray Lewis, who will make his ninth Pro Bowl appearance this year. "'Without Kelly, things are kind of not balanced. When Kelly is in there, everything is under control. When he's up front and generating everything, we flow very smoothly."
Stated Wiseman: "Kelly's just a high-motor, enthusiastic player that certainly has played above his projections. He's one of the overlooked, hard-working guys that you can build around. Somehow he never gets the attention."
Ngata is on the other side of the spectrum. The 6-foot-4, 340-pound monster followed a modest rookie campaign with what most would call a career year for any defensive tackle.
Weisman was happy to get Ngata on the All-Joe squad this season, before future All-Star awards begin piling up.
"I also look for some of what I call pre-Pro Bowlers, whose notice will come and star is on the rise; those players whose learning curve is really starting to show some tangible benefits to their teams," the journalist said.
With Ngata and Gregg anchoring the line, the Ravens' defense will be praising those benefits for years down the road, but Weisman wanted to make sure they were commended now.
NotableRavens safety Ed Reed was voted to his third NFL All-Pro team after tying for third in the league with seven interceptions. Reed also returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown in the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.