After a season in which he was often forced to play out of position because of the Ravens' defensive line woes, Haloti Ngata reported to the team's veteran minicamp in mid-June and sent a not-so subtle message to the coaching staff.
"They should leave me in one spot instead of moving me around, basically," Ngata said as playfully as a 6-foot-4, 340-pound man can say anything. "Just leave me in the middle, and I'll be fine."
Over the season's first eight games, the Ravens have primarily done that. However, Ngata's switch to nose tackle has resulted in more double teams and fewer impact plays.
While he's not playing a position that lends itself to building gaudy statistics, Ngata is ninth on the team with 26 tackles, tied for fifth with three tackles for loss and sixth with 1 1/2 sacks, surprising territory for a player regarded as one of the most dominant interior lineman in football.
As the Ravens prepare for Sunday's game against the first-place Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium, Ngata acknowledged Wednesday that he needed to raise his level of play to help stop a slide that has the team on the edge of the playoff picture.
"I feel like I can do more," said Ngata, who signed a five-year, $61 million contract in 2011, making him the highest paid defensive tackle in the NFL at the time. "Just because I think that we're losing, a lot of the guys start looking at ourselves, like 'what can I do?' But that can also be a trap because you don't want to do too much where you're doing two jobs instead of trying to do your own job. I guess for me, I just need to try and be more dominant in my position instead of trying to do too much."
Ngata, who has made four Pro Bowls while mostly playing defensive tackle over his eight-year NFL career, has still been an effective nose tackle, holding his ground and occupying blockers for the NFL's eighth-ranked run defense. If the attention that he gets on game days is any indication, the opposition hasn't sensed a drop-off in his play as he continues to see consistent double teams, the ultimate show of respect for a defensive lineman.
Cleveland Browns coach Rob Chudzinski, whose team beat the Ravens 24-18 on Sunday, said a couple of days before the game that Ngata is playing "dominant football," and is "impossible to block." Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was equally as effusive in his praise.
"He still is so big and strong and just gets up and swats guys and goes," Lewis said Wednesday. "He's another guy, who down the line, will have an opportunity to be considered as a possible Hall of Fame player for his accomplishments since he's been in the league. … Those guys often go unheralded because they're not big sack guys all the time. When you've had to coach against him like I have since he's come into the league, I know his value and how good he is."
The Ravens, though, are still waiting for Ngata to make the game-changing plays that he has made in the past, like stripping a ball carrier of the football, stopping a running back in the backfield on third down or deflecting a pass that results in an interception. The absence of those plays has loomed large at a time where the defense is struggling to get off the field and needs its top defensive players to be playmakers.
"Every single play you're going to get doubled-teamed as a nose guard, but Haloti can handle it, and he's playing well," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said last week. "I think Haloti can be even more dominant. I would consider him a dominant player. I want him to be a game-wrecker in there every single play. You look at Haloti, and you say, 'Hey man, wreck the game.' And that's what he wants to do, too."
Asked what has prevented Ngata from being more of a game wrecker, Harbaugh said, "At times, he has. People give him a lot of attention. He's going to get double-teamed, [and] they'll hang on those blocks for a long time. Maybe they're a little later getting up on a 'backer than they would against other nose guards. So, he gets a lot of respect in there, too."
Ngata is certainly used to the double teams even though they are coming more frequently these days. In his career, he's averaged 63 tackles and just over three sacks per season. The 29-year-old has had five or more sacks in each of the past three seasons despite being slowed by injuries.
This season, he has stayed healthy but his job description has changed. After adding veterans Chris Canty and Marcus Spears in free agency and drafting Brandon Williams in the third round, the Ravens moved Ngata to nose tackle, feeling that was the best way to get their top linemen on the field and Ngata would hold up against double teams and take advantage of centers and guards.
It's now Ngata's responsibility to clog up the middle and shut down running lanes. It's his responsibility to occupy two blockers, preventing them from reaching the Ravens' linebackers. It's not a glamorous job but Ngata has embraced it.
"My job here is if you're getting doubled, you hold it as long as you can so your linebacker can fill that hole and make a play," Ngata said. "I never mind not having the big numbers. I think as a nose, it's just part of the position. You're going to get double-teamed more. I don't think it is tougher to make plays. [Former Ravens nose tackle] Kelly Gregg made a bunch of tackles but he was strictly a nose and understood where his help was. I think there's more attention with me in the middle than there was with some of the other guys, but it's not frustrating. It's just my job. I know what I have to do."
The Ravens have looked dominant against the run in some weeks and vulnerable in others, but they've held the opposition to 100.4 yards per game on the ground and a league-low one rushing touchdown. Canty, who was acquired to fill the five-technique defensive end spot that Ngata had to play at times last year, said those numbers are a credit to Ngata.
"For a 3-4 defensive lineman, in general, you're not going to have outstanding numbers. It's a selfless position, but it doesn't mean it's not important," Canty said. "When you see the efficiency with which Haloti plays, not only performing at his job, but making things easier for the guys behind him and next to him, he makes a difference. He's really stout. His football IQ, his intelligence puts guys in position to make plays. He's a great football player."
Ngata, though, admits to some frustration that he hasn't made more plays. He's pleased that he's mostly avoided nagging injuries, aside from a hyper-extended elbow last month. After coming to training camp in better shape, he maintains that his legs are fresh and he feels stronger late in games.
However, that has yet to translate into the type of plays that Ngata would make so often in the past.
"For me personally, it's just about trying to be more of a dominant player, just making more plays and not forcing it," Ngata said. "Hopefully, I can be a bigger force and presence in the middle."
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