The Ravens' other defensive end is quietly having a great season.
Rob Burnett doesn't get the publicity of right defensive end Michael McCrary, nor does he have the girth or salesmanship of defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, but he is having his best season since the team moved here nearly four years ago. Burnett, a 10th-year veteran, is tied for third on the team in tackles with McCrary at 27, but more importantly, is causing a lot of headaches for opposing defenses.
The new Burnett is looking a lot like the old one who made a Pro Bowl trip in 1994. He's pressuring quarterbacks. He's stuffing the run. Maybe the most impressive aspect of his game is that he's now running down ball carriers from the backside the way he did before he tore two ligaments in his right knee in the 1996 season.
"Right now, he is doing a good job for us," said Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "Basically, he is 100 percent healthy again. He dinged that knee up again last year, but it appears strong now. He has quickness and the ability to spring off it again. He has probably hit the quarterback more than anyone else this season."
Coaches and teammates are aware of how well Burnett, 6 feet 4, 280 pounds, has played, but not always the fans. Of the four starting defensive linemen, Burnett is probably the least noticed.
Starting defensive tackle Larry Webster is a hometown favorite, having played in Elkton, Md., and then starring at the University of Maryland. Siragusa never stops talking. He has his own radio show and is a self-promotional billboard. McCrary is one of the best pass rushers in the NFL and played in his first Pro Bowl last year.
The only time Burnett has gotten much media attention is when the Ravens played Cleveland this season, because he is one of five former Browns on the roster.
"I'm not the other defensive end; I'm the left defensive end," said Burnett, who's in the last year of his contract. "Mike has had a lot of success the last couple of years and deserves all the accolades he has gotten. Actually, I feed off of him. He has a wild demeanor, and I appreciate his effort.
"I'm not sensitive to what he has gotten or what anyone else gets. I consider myself fortunate to play in the league. I'm quiet when I need to be. If you don't have anything positive to say, don't say anything. I'm the kind of person who observes a lot of things, the new people and what is going on around you."
Burnett does a lot of communicating on the field. Because most teams are right-handed, Burnett sometimes has a dual assignment of taking on the tight end before he engages the offensive tackle. Lewis also moves Burnett to defensive tackle on certain passing situations.
The moves have increased Burnett's responsibilities.
"I think we're starting to gel together," said Webster, a first-year starter who plays on the left side with Burnett. "He's a veteran, a great communicator. He'll let you know what will and what won't work. I think we're at the point now where we know what the other is going to do without looking at each other."
Burnett said: "Not only am I moving better, but I'm getting more responsibility, which keeps me sharper. I have to study more and make sure guys have the defense down."
Burnett first hurt his knee in the first quarter of the sixth game of 1996, which also ended a 70-game starting streak.
Burnett rushed himself back for the 1997 season, despite what most considered a two-year healing process. He still finished seventh on the team with 59 tackles and was eighth last season with 70. But Burnett and Lewis said he wasn't at full strength either year.
"Most knee injuries are two years. These guys come back in a year, but they don't seem the same," Lewis said. "I thought Rob played well last season, but you could tell it bothered him."
Said Burnett: "There was a time during my comeback that I felt useless, because I'm not used to sitting down all the time. You really have to learn how to walk again, then gain your balance. I came back in a year because I felt I could contribute, add to the team.
"Now, I'm moving well, better than I have been since 1996. I think I have had bad luck in certain situations. I should have six sacks, because I've missed about four or five. But I'm going to keep working, playing hard. I finally have that confidence back in my leg."
Former Ravens strength coach Jerry Simmons, who left in the off-season to join the Carolina Panthers, said Burnett might be the strongest player on the team, pound for pound. Burnett bench-presses 520 pounds and could squat more than 700 before the knee injury.
This past off-season, Burnett was involved in spinning, high-powered cycling three times a week. It reduced the strain on his ligaments.
"He has worked himself to death to get the knee ready," Webster said. "He did so much work that he couldn't work anymore. He has made sure that knee will stay strong."
Off the field, Burnett is one of the Ravens' most involved with the community, participating in the Read With the Ravens program and Toys for Tots, and is a spokesman for the Maryland Board of Education.
"He is very quiet and keeps to himself," Lewis said. "But he is quite a person who has sacrificed quite a bit. He is very committed."