If you really want to appreciate the violence of football when the Ravens take on the Indianapolis Colts at M&T Bank Stadium Sunday, take your eyes off Ray Rice and Joe Flacco for a second and focus on right guard Marshal Yanda.
Watch him from the moment the Ravens break the huddle, the way he sizes up the defense as he walks to the line of scrimmage, then bends his knees and coils into a stance. It's like watching someone load a cannon. When Flacco begins barking his cadence, it's like lighting Yanda's fuse. The explosion is seconds away.
"He is always going to be the aggressor out there," said Ravens center Matt Birk, who has seen and heard the ferocity of Yanda's collisions up close for three seasons. "It really doesn't matter if it's a run or a pass. He loves to initiate contact. He loves to go after guys. And good is never good enough. He plays like he's competing for his job on every single play."
Yanda has been doing some of his best work of late, especially as the Ravens began focusing on their running game as they make a push to secure a playoff berth and home-field advantage. Yanda was particularly menacing in the Ravens' 24-10 win over the Cleveland Browns last week, a game in which Baltimore set a franchise record with 55 rushing attempts. Rice had a career day, running for 204 yards, and if you watch the replays on several of his big runs, you can see Yanda bullying a defensive tackle or a linebacker, moving him aside like a human snowplow.
"It was fun to maul guys and get after 'em," Yanda said. "When you pound the football like that, it's a lot of fun."
Such performances are what the Ravens envisioned during the offseason when they signed Yanda to a five-year, $32 million contract and returned him to his natural position at right guard. Baltimore's running game has struggled at times this season -- it's 14th in the NFL at 114.8 yards a game and 18th in yards per rushing attempt at 4.1 -- but it appears to be rounding into form.
This is the longest stretch of Yanda's career that he's been injury-free -- he missed most of the 2008 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament -- and able to focus on playing guard. He spent most of 2010 at right tackle because the team needed him to solidify the position after Jared Gaither was lost for the season with a back injury, and Yanda looked good for the most part. Sports Illustrated's Peter King named Yanda the best right tackle in the league in his year-end awards. But the Ravens wanted him back at guard, knowing that's where he has a chance to consistently be an elite player.
"It's been really good to feel settled in and stick at a position I really like," Yanda said. "I think I'm playing at a high level because I'm comfortable. I know I'm probably not going to have to bump to tackle, and I'm between two really good players in Matt [Birk] and Mike [Oher]. That's nice. You really can't ask for anything more than that."
It wasn't a secret that getting Yanda re-signed was the Ravens' biggest priority when the NFL lockout ended. Within hours, the team released veterans Todd Heap, Derrick Mason, Kelly Gregg and Willis McGahee to create salary cap space, knowing that several teams planned to woo Yanda. The attention was flattering, but it also made Yanda a little uncomfortable. A lot of free agents love to be wined and dined and convinced they're a team's missing piece. Yanda quietly went home to Iowa, stopped answering his cellphone, helped his father run the family farm in Anamosa and left it to his agent to deal with the details.
"I just needed to get away from everything," Yanda said. "I decided to work out in Iowa and not worry about it. We talked to some teams, but the goal was always to stay [in Baltimore]."
If there was trepidation about making Yanda one of the highest-paid guards in football even though he has never made the Pro Bowl, Ravens coach John Harbaugh didn't share it. People frequently bring up Yanda's strength and toughness when they praise him as a player, but Harbaugh believes his technique and his competitiveness are unmatched.
"He's fundamentally as good as any [guard]," Harbaugh said. "I can't think of one thing that he's not good at. He executes every technique very well. He's really strong, really strong, [he has] great feet [and is] a good bender. But that's not what makes him the player he is. I think it's just his personality, who he is as a person. Nobody works harder than Marshal. Nobody cares more."
Legend of the stun gun
Yanda's toughness and ability to tolerate pain can't be overstated. During Yanda's rookie season, Ravens cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle were goofing around in the locker room, playing with a stun gun someone had given them. One put $600 on the floor and McAlister made an announcement: Anyone man enough to voluntarily get shocked with the stun gun could keep the money.
"I was a rookie, and $600 was a lot of money," Yanda said. "I said, 'Hell, I'll do it right now.'"
The entire team gathered in a circle, many convinced Yanda would chicken out.
"I grew up on a farm," Yanda said. "I've been shocked a lot by electric fences for cattle. And we had an outlet in our shop that would shock you all the time. I've been shocked plenty of times before."
Over the years, the legend of what happened that day has grown. Players who weren't there talk about it as though Yanda got hit with 50,000 volts by a police-grade Taser. But he just rolls his eyes when he hears that.
"They really hyped it up like I got Tasered," Yanda said. "It was a stun gun, and I don't even know if the batteries were fully charged. It wouldn't have stopped a 10-year-old worked up into a rage."
McAlister zapped Yanda once and the locker room went nuts. Convinced he should make them feel they got their money's worth, Yanda told McAlister and Rolle to zap him again. They did, and he barely blinked. He scooped up the cash and uttered a quote that left everyone in awe.
"That's the easiest 600 bucks I've ever made in my life."
Yanda doesn't need to indulge in such youthful foolishness these days. Not only has his bank account grown, but he has been blessed in other ways, too. He married Shannon Hunt in Iowa this summer, and they had a big celebration with friends and family. Yanda said former Raven Chris Chester, a close friend who now plays for the Washington Redskins, tore it up on the dance floor.
"He was dancing his butt off," Yanda said. "It was hysterical, to say the least. Some of the guys got after it. I paid a pretty big bar bill."
Three weeks later, Yanda signed his contract with the Ravens and decided to pack his belongings into a U-Haul and drive 14 hours through the night to get back to Baltimore. It might seem like an unusual trek for a newly minted millionaire, especially when he could hire someone to do it for him, but it was typical Yanda. As he navigated the road back to Maryland, he couldn't help but feel like a lucky man.
"I definitely don't have any complaints," Yanda said. "You work your butt off in college just to get to the point where you're going to get drafted. The next big thing is to make it. Then you're trying to play well enough that you can get a really nice contract and be really well off.
"I was really scared after my knee surgery. I didn't know if I'd be able to come back and play at a high level. That really kind of showed me that this could be over tomorrow. It could be done. That's why I don't take any day for granted. Now it's all about playing confident and playing well. I want to get to the Super Bowl and do great things. I want to play dominant football."