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Ravens' hungry linebackers set to eat up offenses again


They've always been among the youngest linebacking corps in the NFL. They've always been among the most talented, too.

Now, could they be the hungriest?

The Ravens' linebackers - Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper - may rank among the best in the league, but each has some added motivation heading into this season.

Lewis wants another All-Pro season while playing under a microscope. Boulware wants to prove his ability after undergoing off-season shoulder surgery. And Sharper wants to show his worth, knowing he could become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

Last year, they totaled 362 tackles and 17 1/2 sacks, accounting for more than a third of the team's output in each category. This year, they're looking to kick it up a notch.

"I think we're perceived as a pretty good group, but every year you got to go out there and prove it," strong-side linebacker Boulware said. "And that's what we got to do this year. People are looking for good things out of us. It's no good until we do it."

Lewis came into training camp focused after pleading guilty to obstruction in a double murder case in June. He returned to the team in the best shape of his career as well, carrying 7 percent body fat on his 260-pound frame.

The final step for the middle linebacker is establishing the same presence on the field. The Ravens feed off Lewis' emotion and rely on the production of the NFL's leading tackler the past two years.

"His mind is set," linebackers coach Jack Del Rio said. "We talk about the fact that great players aren't great one game and not the next, aren't great one season and not the next. It's over time; it's consistently great over time. And that's what he wants.

"When you have somebody that's motivated that way, he soaks up every bit of information I give him. He's infectious because what he rubs off on the other guys. And they pick up on it. So he really sets the tone for the defense."

Boulware expects this season to set the tone for his career.

For the past two years, he has been playing with an injured shoulder. Still, he earned a Pro Bowl trip last season despite playing with a harness that restricted his mobility to handshake level.

He had his long-anticipated surgery in February and began practicing Aug. 21 with encouraging results.

A healthy Boulware could create another dimension to the Ravens' suffocating defense, commanding more double teams to stop him. A healthy Boulware could also achieve his ultimate yearly goal: to lead the league in sacks.

"I just want to know for myself what exactly I can do healthy," Boulware said. "It's more for me to go out there and prove to myself that I can get the job done and hopefully be one of the game's best."

Sharper has generally been regarded as the third wheel of this unit. He hasn't received All-Pro recognition like Lewis or been voted to a Pro Bowl like Boulware.

But he hadn't deserved that right his first two seasons, when he struggled to make plays from the weak side and fell short of his potential.

His breakthrough season occurred last year as the team's second-leading tackler. He made a career-best 122 stops, including 85 solo, to rank behind only Lewis on the team.

That's why Sharper voiced his displeasure this off-season after the Ravens tendered him a one-year contract rather than negotiating a long-term deal. He is intent on improving his value for a big contract as an impending free agent.

"I think the main thing for me is with a better team, winning more games and going to the playoffs, I'll get more recognition," Sharper said. "If I play well, like I did last year, then all that will come. So, my goals are integrated with the team goals. It's definitely a win-win situation."

It's a linebacker group that's close to reaching its prime, with each member 25 years old. It's a group that's matured together, entering its fourth year starting as a unit.

And it's a group that has extra incentives as the backbone to the NFL's second-ranked defense.

"I don't think there's a group of guys who we would trade our [linebackers] for," defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. "Our guys are all smart. They have the size and speed to play the position. They have all the things you're looking for."

Best LB corps?

A look at one of the NFL's best linebacker units:

Ray Lewis

Age: 25.

Drafted: First round, 1996.

Signed through: 2003 season.

Honors: All-Pro in 1999; three-time Pro Bowl selection.

Last year's statistics (team rank)

Tackles: 198 (first)

Sacks: 3.5 (fifth)

Passes defensed: 8 (fifth)

Peter Boulware

Age: 25.

Drafted: First round, 1997.

Signed through: 2002 season.

Honors: Two-time Pro Bowl selection; NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1997.

Last year's statistics (team rank)

Tackles: 42 (11th)

Sacks: 10 (second)

Passes defensed: 2 (11th)

Jamie Sharper

Age: 25

Drafted: Second round, 1997.

Signed through: 2000 season.

Honors: None. Last year's statistics (team rank)

Tackles: 122 (second)

Sacks: 4 (fourth)

Passes defensed: 4 (eighth)

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