Ramon Harewood has gotten an earful from his teammates about matching up against New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. But the Ravens' first-year starter at left guard cracked a smile when asked to divulge what he was told.
"They have [been talking to me], but I'm not at liberty to tell you," he said. "But they've been helping me a lot."
Harewood would be wise to listen to his linemates as much as he can, because the last time the Ravens met the Patriots, Wilfork bedeviled many members of the offensive line.
In that 23-20 loss in the AFC championship, the 6-foot-2, 325-pound tackle made six tackles (three for losses) and sacked quarterback Joe Flacco once. Wilfork's success in that game wasn't forgotten by right guard Marshal Yanda.
"It's a new game, but he had a good game," Yanda said. "He played well against us. Obviously, we want to contain him more in this game."
Wilfork enjoyed the best season of his nine-year career in 2011. While his tackle total of 52 was only his fourth highest, Wilfork established career bests in sacks (3½), interceptions (2) and pass breakups (5).
The irony for the Ravens is that Wilfork is a member of the Patriots because of a 2003 draft-day deal between the teams. The Ravens shipped a second-round pick in 2003 and their 2004 first-round choice to New England for the Patriots' No. 19 pick in 2003, which the organization used to select quarterback Kyle Boller.
The following year, the Patriots used the 21st overall pick to take Wilfork.
Initially thought of as a pure run stopper, Wilfork has evolved into a defender who can help collapse the pocket on opposing quarterbacks.
"Vince is playing extremely well, and now they don't have to substitute," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "… They used to run him in and out of the game a lot. Now they just keep him in the game. He can rush the passer. He's probably as good an interior pass rusher as there is in the league. [It is a] different style than what we saw last week, but just as effective. [He is a] perennial Pro Bowl player, great player, a guy that we will need to know where he is on every down."
Wilfork has had moderate success against the Ravens, but nothing like that night in January. He was especially critical on the offense's penultimate drive of the game.
With the Ravens facing third-and-3 from New England's 30-yard line, Ray Rice took a handoff from Flacco and tried to break through the middle of the line. But Wilfork shot through the hole and stopped Rice for a 3-yard loss.
On the next play, Wilfork pressured Flacco enough to force him to throw the ball away.
"The challenge is Vince," Ravens center Matt Birk said. "He does everything. He's a big, physical guy. He's agile, he's quick, he's explosive, he's all those things. He's a three-down defensive lineman, and that's why he's been good for a long time. He really does everything, and he's a great player."
Wilfork is blessed with considerable strength and leverage, but Harewood said his greatest asset may be his vision.
"He's real good at reading at what's coming out of the backfield," Harewood said. "So his reactions are a little bit quicker than most people you would find of his size. That's what makes him so good — his ability to do the things that people his size can't do, or you don't necessarily think they should do. That's what makes him such a good player."
In the AFC championship, Wilfork lined up against every offensive linemen, and that flexibility is prized by Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
"He's smart, he's athletic, he's instinctive and he has the ability to do those things, to play different spots," Belichick said during a conference call with Baltimore media Wednesday. "[Wilfork] has the versatility to vary his alignment or his technique or his responsibility. We feel comfortable with him doing that, and he's done it productively for us on a number of occasions in a number of different spots."
The Patriots declined to make Wilfork available for an interview, but he told reporters in New England on Thursday that the Ravens offense presents a difficult challenge for any defense.
"Everywhere you look on offense, they have somebody that's special," he said. "And you're not just talking about one guy. You're talking about the whole Ravens offense. So we're going to have to do a real good job defensively. We're going to have to do a real good job playing our keys and good, fundamental football and playing smart football."
Both Birk and Yanda confirmed that they have been sharing some of their analysis on Wilfork with Harewood, who has fared well in his first two starts at left guard. Birk said Harewood is smart enough to recognize in game film how effective Wilfork can be without too much input from the veterans.
Harewood said he has no trepidation about tangling with Wilfork, because he thinks the battle in the trenches can only help him improve as a player.
"Clearly, he's a great player," Harewood said. "That's all you really need to know. I have to bring my 'A' game this week."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun