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Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata proves a little weight gain doesn't have to slow him down

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Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata had mapped out an ambitious plan, albeit one not readily apparent when he lumbered onto the practice field for a June minicamp.

Considerably heftier than usual after spending his offseason intentionally bulking up, Ngata didn't display his trademark explosiveness.

The extra bulk around Ngata's midsection and torso raised eyebrows about whether the three-time Pro Bowl selection had gone too far in his quest to become stronger and more durable and maintain his speed after wearing down toward the end of last season due to a deep thigh bruise.

"Armor of fat?" Ngata said with a laugh. "Yeah, people were definitely surprised at how big I looked. It's a totally different workout that I did. I definitely felt good last year, but I think I wasn't that strong because I didn't have as much weight.

"So, I decided to put the weight back on and I feel much better. They can say whatever they want. When the time comes, the film talks the loudest."

Four months later, the 6-foot-4, 350-pounder has delivered a powerful rebuttal to those wondering how his game would be affected by gaining roughly 20 pounds since last season.

Anchoring a defense bereft of injured NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs, Ngata has terrorized offensive linemen with his rare blend of girth and mobility.

"Haloti is a dominant force in this game," linebacker Jameel McClain said. "One person blocking him is a mismatch. He's so freakishly strong and athletic. How do you account for it? I see an even more dominant player than last year and the year before."

Ngata has been unblockable at times, manhandling accomplished linemen like Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack.

During a victory over the Browns last week, Ngata grabbed the back of Mack's shoulder pads and pulled him forward with such a crisp swim move that the Pro Bowl lineman barely grazed him.

Overpowering Mack, Ngata penetrated the backfield so quickly that it allowed outside linebacker Paul Kruger to sack rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden.

Ngata dished out similarly rough treatment to Cincinnati Bengals center Jeff Faine, beating him for a couple of sacks in the season-opener.

"Haloti is the best defensive tackle in the game," Kruger said. "He's an incredible athlete. To be that fast at his size, there aren't that many people like that in the world. I know he looks big, but he looks just as fast to me on the tape. He knew what he was doing by getting bigger."

Although the bull-rush, a straightforward charge where he pushes linemen backward as if they're on roller skates, is one of his primary moves, Ngata is also utilizing some finesse and nimble feet to get the job done.

When Ngata notices offensive linemen have all of their weight down on their hand in their stance, he'll use a swim move or jab step to run past them rather than just exercise brute force.

"I'm trying to get guys off balance," Ngata said. "I actually think Mack is the best center in our division, the strongest and he moves well. He's usually a balanced guy, so getting him off balance and making a play means something."

Heading into Sunday's game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Ngata already has 20 tackles and two sacks with one pass deflection.

In a win over the New England Patriots, Ngata registered a season-high nine tackles and a half-sack.

"Every game, Haloti makes plays that make you say, 'Wow, this guy will go down as one of the greats,'" defensive end Pernell McPhee said. "In my opinion, he's the most dominant defensive player in the NFL."

It's unlikely that the Chiefs, who are breaking in a new center in converted guard Ryan Lilja with Rodney Hudson out for the season with a broken leg, will only assign one blocker to try to occupy Ngata.

"He has tremendous strength, size and mobility for a man his size," Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said. "You might have to put two on him. Some people will try putting three on him. He has movement skills for a big man. I think he has determination."

That last attribute is evident in Ngata's willingness to hustle to make tackles several yards away from the line of scrimmage. Lazy isn't in his vocabulary.

"That's huge because they don't expect big guys to run down a guy," Ngata said. "Hopefully, I can still do a little more, contribute and keep on improving and making more plays."

One of Ngata's most noteworthy plays this season was chasing down Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker in pursuit downfield to get a piece of a tackle.

"He is amazing that way," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "I saw him run down some people or see a screen, and he is out there hitting the guy and landing on him. I'm going, 'Man, there is no way I'd come back inside on that guy. Just stay outside.' A lot of that is not only physical talent, that's 'want to.' That's an attitude."

Pees already regards this season as the best he's seen Ngata play after he totaled 130 tackles and 10.5 sacks during the previous two seasons.

With Suggs on the physically unable to perform list, Ngata hardly ever leaves the field because the defense needs his pass-rushing skills.

"We keep him out there even on third down, which wasn't always the case before, because he has such a presence in the inside," Pees said. "He usually creates a situation where you’re going to take two to block him. He’s been great this year. He’s playing very disciplined. He’s very smart. Again, the more you play, the more you know, the better player you are.

"We’ve always known he has talent, he’s strong, he’s all of that, but I think he also just understands football and defensive schemes and all of that stuff so much better, and I think it’s really helped him. He’s helped us a lot up inside, even on third down where most people would say, ‘He’s a big guy. That’s not necessarily the prototypical pass-rush guy.’ But in the scheme of what we are trying to do, he’s very, very effective.”

When Rex Ryan was the Ravens' defensive coordinator years ago, Ngata once lined up at safety before crashing into the line on a blitz with a full head of steam.

Ngata has three career interceptions and is capable of quickly creating depth in pass coverage, but he acknowledges he's much better moving forward than playing in reverse.

"I've seen Haloti drop back with perfect hips in coverage," McClain said. "I don't even see it as crazy. That's just Haloti."
 
Ngata honed his athleticism while growing up in Utah as an oversized rugby player. He would fake out much smaller players, or carry them on his back when they attempted to tackle him.

"Rugby was huge for me with my open-field tackling and conditioning," Ngata said. "It helped my peripheral vision, seeing the whole field. It teaches you so many things."

Although quiet in the locker room and not a trash talker on the field, Ngata's mentality toward the game is built on aggression.

"I want to dominant, overcome and conquer," Ngata said. "I want to impose my will on offensive linemen and do whatever I want to."

awilson@baltsun.com

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