The word was out. There was no way you were blocking him with one guy. He was already one of the most disruptive defensive players in the NFL, and now he was emerging as a front-runner for the AFC Defensive Player of the Year .
About a third of the way through the 2011-12 season, those things were being said and written more about Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata than linebacker Terrell Suggs. However, it was Suggs who set a career-high with 14 sacks and a franchise-record with seven forced fumbles on his way to winning the NFL's top defensive honor.
Ngata, on the other hand, had a relatively quiet second half of the season at least by his high standards. Sure, he made an impact on every game and remained a bear to block for even the top offensive linemen. But the game-changing plays, like the early-season wallop and strip of Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall or the hit on New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez that resulted in a Jarret Johnson touchdown, were mostly absent from Ngata's game.
"I had a couple of problems, but I just didn't feel probably as powerful at the end of the season as I usually feel," Ngata said Wednesday following the second session of the Ravens' mandatory three-day minicamp. "I just didn't feel as strong. I think this year, I'm going to probably try to get up on the weight just a little bit just to help me gets some of that power. I think being a little bit lighter made me lose some of that power so we'll see how it goes."
Ngata, 28, played last season at 335 pounds, hoping that a little less weight would improve his quickness and endurance. But feeling that he wore down a little, Ngata said he showed up for minicamp this week at 345 pounds and is hoping to play around that weight for the upcoming season.
"I still feel the same," said Ngata who also was affected by a deep thigh bruise among other undisclosed injuries, though he never used it as an excuse. "I felt not as winded but I'm so used to playing at this weight anyway so I think it's not going to be a problem."
The Ravens signed Ngata to a five-year, $61-million contract last September hours before the deadline to reach long-term agreements with designated franchise players. The decision was viewed as a no-brainer because Ngata, the 12th overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft out of Oregon, was the rarest of commodities: a mammoth defensive tackle who could clog the middle in the run game, collapse the pocket with a steady pass rush and occupy blockers from advancing to inside linebacker Ray Lewis.
They'll be counting on Ngata to do all those things again in 2012, but he'll have to do it amid even greater attention from opposing offensive lines with Suggs expected to miss a good part of — if not all — of the upcoming season because of a partially torn right Achilles.
"If they pay attention to me, then it will open up other guys," Ngata said. "That's how I feel."
Ngata, who spends his offseasons in Utah, heard a media report about Suggs' injury and nearly dismissed it.
"I didn't believe it at first," Ngata said. "I was like, it's probably some kind of media hocus pocus thing. But I actually texted him and wanted to see if it was true, and he said it was, and so it's just going to be tough because you can never replace Terrell. A lot of younger guys are looking pretty good, and hopefully we can, as veterans, bring a lot of those younger guys up and help them out."
The first-team defensive line for much of Wednesday's workout included Paul Kruger in Suggs' rush linebacker spot, Art Jones in the starting defensive end spot that Cory Redding held before signing with the Indianapolis Colts, Ngata, third-year nose tackle Terrence Cody and rookie Courtney Upshaw playing the strong-side linebacker spot formerly held by Johnson.
Ngata and Cody are the only two returning starters in that group, which could lead to more of the same treatment that Ngata pretty much grew familiar with last year.
"They pretty much know Haloti," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He does get double-teamed pretty much all the time. Some other guys rose to the occasion. Pernell McPhee put some pressure on the quarterback with some single blocks. Paul Kruger moved inside in some situations. Cody, in the run game especially. But sure, he gets a lot of attention. They know who he is."
Ngata has been selected to three Pro Bowls in six seasons and has long been regarded as one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. But early last year, he began to get recognized as one of the best defensive players at any position in the league.
In the season-opener against the Steelers, Ngata tipped a pass that led to a Ben Roethlisberger interception, forced one fumble and recovered two. The following week against the Tennessee Titans, he batted another ball into a teammate's hands for an interception. Then in Week 3 against theSt. Louis Rams, he picked up a fumble and rumbled 28 yards for his first career touchdown.
Ngata then had a sack in each of the next three games before sustaining the thigh bruise the week before the Ravens' rematch against the Steelers in which Ngata finished with two total tackles. The big defensive tackle was solid and certainly had his moments after that, including an 11 tackle effort against the Seattle Seahawks and a two-sack night against the San Francisco 49ers.
However, the Ravens had grown accustomed to more and will likely need it this season without Suggs.
"Terrell is the third player that Ozzie [Newsome] and Eric [DeCosta] have drafted that has won Defensive Player of the Year, and we think we've got one in Haloti on the rise," Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said last week. "Maybe it's Haloti's time this year."
Asked about it, Ngata brought up previous award winners in Lewis, Ed Reed and Suggs and joked that the team had "too many stars" for him to win the award, but just the thought of it left him with a smile on his face.
"It would be awesome because I think that would help our team get to a Super Bowl," Ngata said. "So, if it happens, it happens. But that's something I'm not really thinking about. I just want to help our team win."
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