OWINGS MILLS - An unsuspecting Rashard Mendenhall didn't even have an instant to brace himself for the impact.
Unblocked and ignored for some reason by the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line, Baltimore Ravens All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata powerfully charged through the line and delivered a crushing hit to Mendenhall.
Ngata engulfed the Steelers' running back, forcing him to surrender the football for a forced fumble and fumble recovery during the Ravens' 35-7 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers to open last season.
Two weeks later, Ngata adeptly scooped up a Sam Bradford fumble against the St. Louis Rams and scooted 28 yards into the end zone for his first NFL touchdown.
It was all the Ravens had hoped for when they signed Ngata to a five-year, $61 million contract that included a $25 million signing bonus and a $10 million option bonus.
Although Ngata had an extremely respectable season as he finished with 65 tackles, five sacks, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, he wasn't the same dominant player by the end of last season.
A deep thigh bruise and double-team blocking schemes curtailed Ngata's productivity. There were no sacks for Ngata following his two-sack game on Thanksgiving against the San Francisco 49ers. And he recorded just three tackles in the Ravens' two playoff games.
"I had a couple of problems, but I just didn't feel probably just as powerful at the end of the season as what I usually feel," Ngata said. "I just didn't feel that strong. So, I think a little bit this year I'm going to probably try to get up on the weight a little bit just to help me with some of that power. I think being a little bit lighter kind of made me lose some of that power."
Now that he's regained his health after getting down to 335 pounds last season, Ngata has commenced bulking up.
The Utah native says he's up to 345 pounds, and he appeared even heavier than that during the Ravens' mandatory minicamp. Ngata's weight is deceptive because of his athleticism and big frame at 6-foot-4, but he definitely looked heavier than any point since his rookie season.
Ngata hopes to play at 340 to 345 pounds this season and maintain his trademark quickness.
Two years ago, he weighed 350 pounds when he made the Pro Bowl for the first time. During the NFL lockout, Ngata lost 20 pounds in an effort to upgrade his stamina.
"I still feel the same," Ngata said. "That's the thing, though. I felt more, not as winded, but I'm so used to playing at this weight anyway. So, it shouldn't be a problem."
Although the Ravens had the NFL's third-ranked defense last season and ranked second against the run and first in red-zone defense, Ngata seemed to wear down in the second half of the year other than a season-high 11 tackles against the Seattle Seahawks.
And Ngata emerged as an even more known commodity after forcing New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez to fumble last season, a big play that led to a Jarret Johnson touchdown.
"Haloti was healthy most of the year, but those guys are never going to be 100 percent," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It's trench warfare in there, and there are always going to be things." He had a pretty deep thigh bruise as the year went on. Hopefully that won't happen. Maybe we'll get some thigh boards on those guys like the league wants to do. That's just part of the game.
"They pretty much know Haloti, and he does get double-teamed, pretty much all the time. Some other guys rose to the occasion. Sure, he gets a lot of attention. They know who he is. The Jets game, if you think about that game for Haloti, was the one where they really struggled to block him."
A three-time Pro Bowl selection in six NFL seasons, Ngata has registered 393 career tackles, 17 sacks, three interceptions, four forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries.
The former first-round draft pick could become a marked man again with Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs sidelined for at least the majority of the season with a torn Achilles tendon.
"If they pay attention to me, then it will open up other guys," Ngata said. "That's how I feel."
A week ago, Ravens majority owner Steve Bisciotti expressed optimism that Ngata could join Suggs, middle linebacker Ray Lewis and free safety Ed Reed as the defending AFC North champions' next NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
"Terrell is the third player that [general manager] Ozzie [Newsome] and [assistant general manager] Eric [DeCosta] have drafted that has won Defensive Player of the Year, and we think we've got one in Haloti on the rise," Bisciotti said. "Maybe it's Haloti's time this year."
Humble and low-key, the athletic former rugby standout referenced the presence of Lewis, Reed and Suggs as being his primary roadblocks to winning the award.
"We have too many stars," Ngata said with a laugh.
It's been a dozen years since a defensive tackle was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year, dating back to 1999 when Warren Sapp posted 12 1/2 sacks.
So, Ngata would be in some rarified company if he garners such an honor.
"That would be cool," Ngata said. "It would be awesome to be Defensive Player of the Year because I think that would help our team get to a Super Bowl. If it happens, it happens, but that's not something I'm thinking about.
"I just want to help our team win. If I actually get it, that would be really cool and that's something that I would probably cherish. Whatever helps our team win, that's what I'm looking forward to."