Ravens All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata cracked a smile when asked if he's capable of generating a career-high 10 sacks this season.
"I'll probably have to with 'Sizzle' not around," said Ngata, referring to NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs being out indefinitely with a partially torn right Achilles tendon. "I need to keep getting more and more sacks. Hopefully, I can do even better this year and get to the quarterback a lot. They'll probably move me around a lot to try to do that."
The Ravens defense faces its first real test for manufacturing a pass rush Monday night when the defending AFC North champions open the regular season against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Based on how the Ravens struggled to create pressure during the preseason with basic schemes, first-year defensive coordinator Dean Pees may need to utilize intricate blitz and stunt packages to get to Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton is known for his quick release.
"Once we're in the regular season, I think you're going to see not a completely different game, but there's a big difference between those preseason games and regular-season games," said starting outside linebacker Paul Kruger, who had zero sacks during the preseason. "I think it's going to be left up to Dean Pees as far as what the game plan is going to be, but us as players, we have to work hard to put that pressure on."
The biggest road block standing in the way of the Ravens' pursuit of Dalton is towering Bengals left offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth.
The 6-foot-7, 330-pounder has routinely shut out Suggs and Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison in the past, but faltered against Suggs in the Ravens' regular-season finale win at Paul Brown Stadium last season. Suggs had six tackles, one sack, two quarterback hits and forced the game-clinching fumble.
That hasn't reduced the Ravens' immense respect for Whitworth.
"I go up after the game and say, 'You're a heck of a player,' every single time because it's the truth," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Whitworth. "He has just been one of the more dominant left tackles, and he is really underrated. Maybe he's starting to get his due now a little bit. He's a long, big, physical guy.
"He plays with a real nasty streak. He's tough to get around. He has perfect technique in everything he does. He's just a really good football player."
Since being drafted out of LSU, Whitworth, 30, has continually improved.
"Andrew is a good technician of the game," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said during a conference call. "He really understands football and leverage. He’s a guy with quite a bit of length. He’s a good athlete. He’s a guy that can go out and shoot below 80 in golf. He’s going to be your first pick on the basketball floor, a lot of things he can do."
A year ago, the Ravens led the AFC with 48 sacks, led by Suggs' career-high 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles. However, they only had six sacks in four preseason games. That tied them for the fourth-worst total in the NFL.
Rookie outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw had a quiet preseason with just one sack after recording 16 1/2 sacks in his last two seasons at Alabama.
Upshaw reported to training camp at 280 pounds and initially flunked the conditioning test before passing it on the second try, also dealing with a right shoulder injury. He's probable on the injury report and says he's now down to 271 pounds.
"I want to get sacks, that's my goal," the second-round draft pick said. "I feel like a lot of people was kind of doubting my pass-rush skills. I think it's just on that individual person to kick up their competition level and get to the quarterback."