Defensive line coach Clarence Brooks and tackle Haloti Ngata are smiling a lot these days. The Ravens had several new faces on the defensive line a year ago, and they still had the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense.
After gaining a year of experience, the Ravens could have the best defensive line in the league, too. They have two good pass rushers in defensive ends Trevor Pryce and Terrell Suggs, and a premier run stopper in nose tackle Kelly Gregg. The player with the most potential might be Ngata, still a baby as far as experience, even though he weighs 342 pounds.
"We have that camaraderie now with myself, Trevor and Kelly," said Ngata, in his second year. "Even our backups have that teamwork and want to work together. We all know we can be really good, and we're working toward being one of the best defensive lines in the league."
There are very few who will, or are big enough to, argue with Ngata. It was interesting to see how quickly the defensive line jelled last season. Pryce, who was signed as a free agent in 2006, came from Denver with the reputation of being a player who didn't like to practice, complained a lot and took plays off during games.
There also were accusations about Ngata gaining too much weight and taking plays off when he played at Oregon.
Those things haven't happened in Baltimore.
"With Trevor, I think he wanted to do away with all the things said about him," Brooks said. "They said he wasn't interested in playing the run, wasn't interested in working, can't do this, can't do that. Here, he has been nothing but professional. Haloti? He is a combination of speed and size, a total package with a tremendous upside."
Up front, the Ravens fit into defensive coordinator Rex Ryan's philosophy. Ryan goes into every game wanting to stop the run first - especially inside. Ngata and the 310-pound Gregg are tough to root out. Once the Ravens force teams to run outside, the next step is to pressure the quarterback.
Enter Pryce and Suggs.
Pryce has long arms and a long, lean torso. He is exceptionally strong, especially if he gets his hands involved. Suggs can speed-rush on the outside, but has enough power to come back inside against most offensive linemen. The bonus is that both Suggs and Pryce were strong against the run last season. Even though all four linemen have a forte, Suggs, Pryce and Ngata are capable of playing against the run or the pass.
"Coming off last year, after going back and watching us play, I thought we could have done things better technique-wise," Brooks said. "That's good because we had some room to grow, and we had some new players. I thought if we all got better, then we could improve, and we're well on our way to doing that."
They've been doing it in training camp without the services of Gregg. He has missed a week of practice with a thigh and knee injury even though it's not believed to be serious. With Gregg on the sideline, the Ravens have been shuffling players into various positions.
In Saturday's scrimmage against the Washington Redskins, the reserves appeared just as disciplined as the starters, especially when it came to gap control. The intensity was just as great. Ask Ravens running back Musa Smith. Backup defensive tackle Justin Bannan almost took Smith's head off yesterday morning during a running play. If Bannan can't go, Dwan Edwards becomes the next tackle.
It's a group that's talented, deep and interchangeable. So much, in fact, that the Ravens are adding wrinkles that they couldn't last year. They've had Ngata blitzing from the middle linebacker position, hoping to get him matched up with a 220-pound running back.
"If that happens, that will be their fault," said Ngata, laughing at the potential matchup.
There is no hesitation about having Suggs drop into pass coverage anymore, and Pryce is so versatile he can line up anywhere on the defensive line. They all know and like each other. They've been through good and bad times.
It all seems great right now, but the Ravens know they have to prove it on the field.
Last season, the Ravens allowed only 75.9 rushing yards and 188.2 passing yards per game, and finished with 60 sacks, second most in the league.
But that was last season.
It's 2007, and every team believes it has gotten better during the offseason. It's now a matter of proving it.
"Last year, I made a couple of plays, but this year I'm hoping to make more," Ngata said. "With Trevor, Kelly and Terrell, hopefully we'll all make more plays and get to the Super Bowl."