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OWINGS MILLS - Ravens safety James Ihedigbo has a signature celebration he does after most big plays that he makes.
He calls it "The Grave Digger." In four fluid movements, he hops forward twice while simultaneously swinging his arms as if he's digging with a shovel, then punches the air with his right hand and finishes the celebration off by aggressively ripping out the chinstraps from both sides of his helmet.
With Ihedigbo continuing to make impactful plays, he's had plenty of reasons to break out the celebration through the first three games of the season.
Ihedigbo originally wasn't even expected to be a starter this year, at least by many outside Baltimore's organization. But he began training as the Ravens' first-team strong safety, played well enough during training camp and the preseason to win the starting job and is now establishing as a key piece of the defense - both as a physical presence in the secondary and as a leader.
"We've been very pleased with James," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said of Ihedigbo, who is in his second season with the Ravens. "James ... has been kind of the glue back there. He's been the guy that made all the calls for us. He's the guy that gets us into the right coverage and that unwinds the formation for us. He's done a great job of that."
Ihedigbo has always been big and strong. He's 6-foot-1, 214 pounds.
He has always been a physical player. He was in college at UMass and was during his first five years in the NFL.
But he isn't an overwhelming athlete compared to some others at his position. Pass coverage has always been regarded as a weak point of his game. And, at least prior to this year, he was viewed on a national level as a player better suited for a special teams- and reserve-type role.
Ihedigbo did start 12 games for the New England Patriots in 2011 - and he did start three games for Baltimore last year in place of an injured Bernard Pollard - but those were the only 15 starts of his career prior to this season.
But so far this year, Ihedigbo has not only looked like a viable starter, but he's been consistently impactful.
"He's one of the smarter players on the team, and he's outstanding back there," cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "He's very aggressive. He comes down on the run and makes plays in the pass game."
According to Pro Football Focus, Ihedigbo has graded out as the third-best safety through this point of the season. Dallas' Barry Church and Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu are the only two safeties grading out higher than Ihedigbo.
Ihedigbo ranks fourth on Baltimore's defense with 16 tackles. He also has three pass deflections.
Against the Houston Texans Sunday, Ihedigbo had nine tackles, two tackles for a loss and two pass deflections in helping Baltimore limit one of the most explosive offenses to just nine points and 264 yards.
"James had a great game," Harbaugh said. "He made some big tackles for us. ... I thought he played really well. He was [also] in good position in pass coverage all day."
But for as well as Ihedigbo has played, his teammates, like his coach, talk even more so about how important he has been as a leader.
"He's [been] big, and not just on the field," Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "He's big by ... just being that voice, being that motivational guy. That's him. He's got us when we need him.
"He's showing it on the field, but he's that guy who is going to keep us lifted, keep us talking, keep us in the right spot, keep us in the right defense and keep us in the right checks. He's the captain back there, and he's doing a great job."
But Ihedigbo continues to show it on the field as well, continues to make impactful plays and continues to have plenty of reasons to break out his signature "Grave Digger" celebration.

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