Watching video, Terrence Cody's eyes gloss over the other members of the Ravens' defense until he homes in on a familiar figure.

Kelly Gregg usually isn't hard to find. He's the short and squatty guy in the middle of everything, constantly keeping his feet, fighting to surge forward and attracting attention that opponents would prefer paying to Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis or Terrell Suggs.

Gregg was Cody's teammate last season, but now the Ravens' current starting nose tackle watches the team's former one regularly on film, analyzing his footwork and marveling at the leverage he generates while taking on blocks by significantly bigger men.

"Kelly can tell if somebody is pulling or not and if it's going to be a run or pass. I don't know how he does it, but he can tell every time," Cody said, shaking his head in admiration. "To this day, I still focus on watching Kelly. I focus on what he is doing."

When the Ravens released the popular and tireless Gregg in July after nine productive seasons, there were plenty of questions about whether Cody would be able to step in. The 2010 second-round pick didn't distinguish himself much in his rookie season and he's long been dogged by criticism about his weight, work ethic and maturity.

The talk, which has since quieted, now looks not only premature, but downright foolish as Cody, 23, and Ngata, 27, make up arguably the best combination of strength, speed, athleticism and youth that the Ravens have ever had from their two primary interior linemen.

"We have two big guys in the middle," said Cody who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 349 pounds, and that's after losing nearly 30 pounds in the offseason. "If you worry about one, the other one is going to wind up making plays."

Making room for Ray

Cody and Ngata (6-foot-4 and 330 pounds) have made their fair share of plays already this season. Ngata, a two-time Pro Bowl performer, has 24 tackles, three sacks, two passes defended, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Cody has 14 tackles, including one in Monday's loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars after his helmet had popped off. Cody had a nasty gash on his forehead to show for his efforts.

Cody and Ngata are primary reasons that the Ravens' run defense is allowing only 85.8 yards per game, the third best total in the NFL, and Lewis continues to find room to make plays.

Asked before last Monday's game about what makes the Ravens' run defense so tough, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said, "The big tackles and Ray Lewis [prowling] behind them is a pretty lethal combination."

Cody acknowledged that clogging the middle and keeping blockers from advancing to Lewis — a job that Gregg, Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa did so well — is one of his prime responsibilities and it's a job that both he and Ngata take immense pride in.

"We know up front that if we can keep guys off Ray Lewis, he's going to make the plays that need to be made," Ngata said. "Without us up front, he understands that he can't make those plays. It's a great relationship for all of us. Hopefully, we can keep those guys off of Ray so he can stay around a lot longer."

There is much more to Ngata and Cody's job description than simply serving as a bodyguard to one of the greatest linebackers of all time. The pair is asked to fill holes, neutralize the running game, and pressure the quarterback on occasion.

"That's my job, keep the blockers off Ray, but if I'm able to make a play, I'm going to make a play," said Cody. "I don't want to be one dimensional, just known as a guy who clogs up a lot of space. I want to make plays, rush the passer. I want to do all of that."

With that in mind, Cody broke from his undisciplined ways in the offseason. Long waging a battle with his weight, he cut out snacks from his diet and worked out regularly and realized his goal of dropping to a playing weight of under 350 pounds. Cody once weighed over 400 pounds, and most drafts pundits believed that it was concerns about the former University Alabama standout's conditioning that pushed him into the second round of the 2010 Draft.

Those concerns only got louder when Cody failed his conditioning test on the first day of Ravens' training camp last season. It wasn't a good start to his rookie season, and it sort of snowballed from there for the former University of Alabama standout.

"I had high expectations for myself, but I didn't come in how I wanted to and I took it lightly," Cody said. "This offseason, I took all that criticism and what I thought people was thinking of me into my workouts and just worked my [butt] off. That's been a real big part of playing well this year. I'm out there a lot more than I was last year and me being lower on weight, I'm able to sustain and play the whole game. I feel like a new person. I lost a whole person to feel like a new person."

'Best qualities'

Cody, who gave a lot of credit to defensive line coach Clarence Brooks, has also taken to studying tapes of Gregg, both from his days as a Raven and current ones as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs.

The two couldn't be any different as players. Cody has four inches and about 40 pounds on Gregg. He also has an advantage in speed and athleticism. But what Cody has tried to copy from his former teammate is his technique and footwork, the way Gregg would get leverage on blockers and get where he wanted to go, and anticipate certain plays and adjust accordingly.

When they were asked about where Cody has made his biggest strides, both Ravens coach John Harbaugh and Suggs mentioned the "mental" part of the position rather than just his physical attributes.

"He's become a real pro," said Harbaugh. "He knows how to study. Look at him physically …. You can tell how important this is to him. He's lost a bunch of weight. He studies football. He's playing great technique. He's doing a nice job in there."

Ngata said the differences in Cody this year from last year are evident to teammates as well, and he used Cody's studying of Gregg's game tape as proof.

"The thing I'm really proud of with Terrence Cody, he understands that he's a totally different player than Kelly Gregg so he works on his best qualities," Ngata said. "Kelly is a shorter guy. He's a real good technician. He has to be because of where his size is. Terrence Cody is more of a guy that can just hold off guys just because of his size. He's grown a lot. The quickness and the speed that he has, it's really amazing to me. People say that about me, but he's really quick and fast for how big he is."

Ngata played four seasons alongside Gregg and they got to know each other so well that they really only needed to make eye contact to know what the other was going to do. Ngata and Cody occasionally use hand signals or exchange a few words, but Ngata said that they are getting "close" to the point where he was with Gregg.

And that's terrible news for the opposition, who now have another force inside with which to deal. Cody has already started to see some double teams.

"They'd like to [double team] him but we got Ngata, and we've got [Suggs] and we've got [Jarret Johnson] and Cory Redding," said Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. "So, it's hard to say, 'OK, we need to take care of [Cody] now.' He's becoming a dominant force inside."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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