ON ONE SIDE of the Ravens' defensive line is the cocky veteran whose relentless work ethic has turned him into one of the NFL's top pass rushers. On the other is a young, quiet Christian who has enough natural ability to become one of the best sack artists to ever play the game.
Michael McCrary and Peter Boulware. Peter Boulware and Michael McCrary.
Which one is which?
Listen to McCrary: "Jevon Kearse might set the pace for sacks individually for a long time to come, but me and Pete are the best sack tandem in the league. Name me another pair. Andre Wadsworth and Simeon Rice? I don't think so. Chris Slade and Willie McGinest? Huh. Give me break. Not as consistent."
"Last year, I played with one leg, and Peter played with one arm. We both still had double-digit sacks," said McCrary, who combined with Boulware for 21.5 sacks and was named to the 1999 AFC Pro Bowl team for the second straight year. "This year, we're both healthy. This year, we're going to make it official that we're the best tandem in the league. That will be the bottom line."
McCrary is right. No tandem provides as much outside pressure. Seattle defensive end Michael Sinclair is just as good as McCrary, but outside linebacker Chad Brown hasn't scared anyone since he left Pittsburgh in 1997.
Jacksonville has a nice duo, but linebacker Kevin Hardy doesn't have the fluent rushing skills of Boulware, and end Tony Brackens shows about as much heart as the Tin Man when he plays against Ravens offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden.
As the Ravens report for training camp today at Western Maryland College, one of the team's top goals is to turn the league's No. 2-ranked defense a year ago into No. 1.
It all begins with McCrary and Boulware. Pressure results in more sacks, fumbles, and interceptions. As usual, old Compu Coach has studied the winning formula.
"Turnovers have always played a major role in determining success," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, whose team had as many turnovers (31) as it forced last season. "If you have a two-plus turnover ratio over your opponent in any given game, you're going to win the game between 85 and 87 percent of the time. For us to take that next step as a defense, we have to swarm to the ball, pressure the quarterback, or scheme where we can trap him."
Quarterbacks can no longer run from McCrary or pull away from Boulware. McCrary's knees, which have been operated on three times in three years, are 100 percent healthy, and Boulware's dislocated shoulder is 90 percent healed.
Boulware's contact work in training camp will be limited, and he might play in only one or two preseason games, but who cares? His two Pro Bowl seasons came after he missed most of training camp.
It's him and McCrary, healthy again.
"When you have one great pass rusher, you can turn your line toward him, or chip him with a back," said Billick. "You can put a tight end over there. But with two, that changes the dynamics of what you can do. They dictate your formations. I don't know if there is another tandem out there like we have."
It's an enviable situation, one the Ravens didn't have in 1999. McCrary hobbled through the first half of last season and at one time thought about quitting until he recorded 6.5 sacks in December.
It took a phone call from former Buffalo Bills defensive end Bruce Smith to change his mind.
"Last year was the worst season I ever had," said McCrary, who sometimes stretches his knee six hours a day to ease the pain from excessive scar tissue. "I couldn't work out in the off-season and had no strength in my legs. I couldn't push off, couldn't get guys off my body. I was miserable until Bruce Smith told me not to worry. He told me it was a two-year injury and I would be fine next season."
Boulware was on the opposite end of the spectrum.
He started the season strong, playing in nine of the team's first 10 games, but the shoulder didn't last down the stretch. Boulware played every game in a harness that limited his motion. His shoulder had to be pushed back into place after every game.
In some ways, their pains were familiar.
"When you're in that situation, you have to do what you have to do," said McCrary. "If it means crying, you cry. If it means crawling to get to a quarterback, you crawl. I could see the pain in Pete's face, see him doubling over. I could feel his pain even though I was having my own."
Boulware said: "I had one doctor tell me not to play. I had another tell me that playing could ruin my career. That's when I decided to play. I was willing to make the sacrifice for my team. I could have easily stood on the sideline. If both Mike and I add five more sacks this season, we'll easily have the best defense in the league."
In Boulware, the Ravens have a speed rusher, a fourth-year player entering his prime. He has 30 career sacks, and one NFL general manager says he could become the league's next impact player. Another Lawrence Taylor. Another Derrick Thomas.
McCrary isn't as athletic, but he is stronger. He studies film religiously, gaining every advantage possible. His quickness is exceeded only by his desire.
The Ravens could line them up on opposite sides. They could put them on the same corner, or one in the middle.
McCrary doesn't care. He just has one warning.
"Look out," said McCrary. "We're back."