In the coming days, BaltimoreRavens.com will offer previews of each position, focusing on who will be in the thick of the competition come training camp. Today, the defensive line takes the spotlight.
Typically in the NFL, the first goal for an offense is to establish momentum with a solid ground game.
With Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata solidifying their defensive line, the Ravens shattered a lot of dreams last season.
Despite a 5-11 record, one thing was for certain: Teams were not going to pound the ball against that front.
The Ravens finished 2007 as the second-stingiest run defense in the league, giving up a meager 79.3 yards per game. In fact, not one team boasted a 100-yard rusher, a streak that dates back to Dec. 10, 2006 (Larry Johnson).
Much of the thanks can be given to Gregg and Ngata, who combined for a whopping 205 tackles. Both players posted career years, with Gregg notching 111 stops (his fourth season topping the century mark) and Ngata totaling 94.
"I'm sure you can ask somebody else around the league, but I wouldn't trade these guys for any two other interior tackles in the league," said defensive line coach Clarence Brooks. "I'm sure a lot of other people feel that way about their guys, but the inside group that we have here is pretty special. They can do a lot of things."
The scary part is that the dominating duo has only played together for three years.
After the Ravens made Ngata the 12th-overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, he immediately earned All-Rookie honors. But he's only improved as his tenure increased, coinciding with Gregg's rise to the upper echelon of nose guards.
They haven't received any more accolades than USA Today's* *All-Joe team - Gregg in 2006 and Ngata in 2007 - but Brooks thinks this year could warrant Pro Bowl recognition.
"If anything, their work ethic is unbelievable," he said. "You have to watch the speed and intensity in how they practice to really appreciate it. The only way you're going to play that way on Sunday is if you practice that way during the week, and that's exactly what those guys do."
The coach has seen a lot of his run-stuffers throughout the offseason, as both were regulars at the voluntary minicamps and Organized Team Activities (OTAs). And, he's enjoyed getting new head coach John Harbaugh acquainted with the monsters he has in the middle.
Brooks was one of six coaches to remain in Baltimore when Harbaugh assembled his staff, along with defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. Having familiar faces and a well-known scheme has Ngata thinking optimistically about the coming season.
"I feel more confident with another year," said the four-year veteran. "Being around the same guys and same coaches, I feel like this could be a big year. I'm just trying to improve my technique more and more. The good thing for us is that we don't have to learn a new defense."
How far Gregg and Ngata's relationship develops up front will be a big factor for the Ravens' defensive success.
Perhaps this year is the one where they don't come home with the All-Joe lunch pail, signifying players that are critical to their team and do the dirty work without the recognition.
Such acknowledgment could come with a Pro Bowl nod.
Here is a breakdown of the defensive linemen on the Ravens' roster:
2007:Gregg was an absolute anchor. He finished third on the team with a career-high 111 tackles. He also added three sacks and one fumble recovery.
Forecast:The outlook for Gregg is bright. At 6-feet, 310 pounds, he is not showing any signs of breaking down. Gregg has every chance to continue his three-year streak of topping 100 tackles.
2007:Ngata's 6-foot-4, 340-pound bulk was solid as a rock, as he started all 16 games for the second-straight year. He tied for the Ravens' fifth-most stops with 94, and even notched a career-high three sacks. **
Forecast:A constant at the Ravens' offseason conditioning program, Ngata seemed even bigger and stronger, if possible. His third year could be his best yet. And, while it may be for fun, Harbaugh even lined him up as a running back on the goal line in some minicamp practices.
2007:In his second season as a Raven, Pryce constantly battled injuries. He only played in five games, missing Weeks 3-7 with a broken wrist, and then was out the final five with a torn pectoral. Pryce did manage two sacks, however.
Forecast:Pryce prefers to train at his home in Denver during the offseason, but during his two brief visits to team headquarters in Owings Mills, Md., he said he felt healthy and ready to play. The Ravens will need his disruptive presence in the pass rush in Pryce's 12th season.
2007:Bannan was a warrior, playing in 15 contests despite a knee injury. Critical in the defensive tackle rotation, Bannan recorded 37 tackles and a career-high two sacks.
Forecast:Another stalwart at the Ravens' facility in the spring and summer, Bannan has been working hard to continue his progress. He is a key part of how the Ravens keep all their tackles fresh by bringing him off the bench.
2007:After Pryce went down, Edwards' production went up. He saw action in all 16 games and started 14. Coming off the right edge, Edwards logged a career-high 58 tackles, and the first sack and interceptions in his career.
Forecast:This will be a critical year for Edwards, as he continues to prove he's worth the second-round pick the Ravens made him in 2004. He is another strong piece along the defensive line, even if he's backing up Pryce this year.
Amon Gordon, J'Vonne Parker, Kelly Talavou, Lorenzo Williams
2007:Gordon and Parker each saw action in one game last season, and Gordon even posted three tackles in Week 14 against the Indianapolis Colts. Talavou spent the latter half of the season on the Seattle Seahawks' practice squad. Williams comes to Baltimore as an undrafted free agent, after playing four years at Missouri. As a senior, he netter 33 stops and a team-leading 6.5 sacks.
Forecast:All four of these players will be fighting to make the roster for the depth they can provide at their position. Gordon (6-foot-3, 305 pounds) has the most experience, with live action with the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns. He enters his fourth season, while Parker (6-4, 325), Talavou (6-2, 340) and Williams (6-0, 304) could vie for a practice squad spot.