OWINGS MILLS - New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork has tormented opposing offensive lines for much of the last decade, overwhelming offensive linemen with a combination of brute power and impressive movement and skills for a player his size.
For the Baltimore Ravens to have success in the running game during Sunday's AFC championship matchup with the Patriots, Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda said, first and foremost, the Ravens will need to find a way to neutralize the massive Wilfork, who is listed at 325 pounds.
"He's big, strong and fast," Yanda said of Wilfork. "It all starts with him."
With Wilfork anchoring their defensive line, the Patriots limited opposing ball carriers to an average of just 3.9 yards per carry during the regular season - the sixth-lowest such mark in the NFL.
Wilfork finished the regular season with 48 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles. He's been voted to the Pro Bowl each of the last four seasons.
"He's a great player," Baltimore center Matt Birk said. "Rightfully so, he's recognized as one of the best in the game. He doesn't have gaudy stats, but his impact on the defense can't be overstated. He's a disruptive force. He's a three-down player. Just all of those things. He's just a great player."
And he's created problems for the Ravens' offensive line before.
Baltimore running back Ray Rice rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown against Wilfork and the Patriots earlier this season, but Rice was limited to just 67 yards on 21 carries in last season's AFC championship game. Wilfork had six tackles in the game, including three for a loss.
"Vince Wilfork is a beast," Rice said. "He is a flat-out beast. He handles double-teams. [If] you block him single-handedly, he bull rushes. The thing that's great about him is the speed. Some people think that because of his size he isn't going to be able to move as fast. He moves as quick as any defensive linemen in the league. ... He is a force in that middle."
Wilfork had five tackles amid New England's 41-28 divisional round win over the Houston Texans last week as he helped the Patriots limit Texans Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster to just 33 yards on 11 second half carries.
"I've always loved battling, going against a guy like that because he is going to give it everything he has," Rice said of Wilfork. "He knows what it takes to win. ... I think their defense, sometimes because their offense gets so much credit, that their defense gets overlooked. Look how they were able to neutralize the Texans last week. They took the run game away from them.
"Their defense, they get up for games like this because they know that we run the football. ... You have to go out there and really execute at a high level."
SIDELINED: Ravens rookie running back Bernard Pierce missed practice Thursday as he continues to deal with the right knee injury that he aggravated during Baltimore's divisional round win against the Denver Broncos last week.
Pierce was a limited participant in practice Wednesday, and he told reporters earlier in the day that he expects to be available against the Patriots.
Pierce didn't play in the fourth quarter or overtime of the win over the Broncos after aggravating a knee injury that limited him in practice during the week leading up to the game. He was walking with a noticeable limp in the locker room after the game.
Pierce rushed for 532 yards and a touchdown during the regular season and accumulated 103 yards on just 13 carries amid the Ravens' 24-9 wild-card win over the Indianapolis Colts.
Including the win over the Colts, Pierce had rushed for a combined 315 yards in the three games prior to Saturday while averaging more than six yards per rushing attempt.
He had 14 yards on five carries prior to exiting against Denver.
RIVERBOAT GAMBLER: Baltimore offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell was complimentary of New England cornerback Aqib Talib, a former first round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that the Patriots traded for in November and has provided the Patriots with a big, physical cornerback capable of matching up with an opposing team's top wide receiver.
Talib has started six of the seven games he's played in for the Patriots since being dealt for in early November.
He had 10 tackles in New England's divisional round win over the Texans.
"One of the things that you can see immediately is that he is a very, very talented and skilled performer," Caldwell said. "He runs extremely well. He's a very confident player. He challenges the best in the league, obviously. He will line up on them and cover them all over the field."
Talib had just two interceptions during the regular season - and just two interceptions last year - but he had six interceptions in 2009 and a combined nine interceptions in 2007 and 2008.
"He is a riverboat gambler," Caldwell said. "He'll take a chance here or there, but [he is] very, very effective. Obviously, anytime that you have a guy like that, you can sort of turn your attention away and really focus on the other eligibles because he's done a pretty good job of locking the other guys down."