Bannan emerges from back of line

The Baltimore Sun

Defensive linemen are fond of saying they work in the trenches. The Ravens' Justin Bannan has actually dug them.

As a teenager growing up in Fair Oaks, Calif., Bannan spent every summer excavating ditches, building houses and pouring concrete for his father's construction company. The labor was intensive and backbreaking, Bannan said.

"I was the low man on the totem pole," he said. "I had an older brother [Jason]. Any bad job there was to get, I got it. There were a few jobs that I can remember that were brutal, especially out in Sacramento in that heat when you had 107-, 108-degree days."

As oppressive as those conditions might have been, Bannan credits those experiences with building the work ethic he uses as a defensive tackle. Bannan said his parents instilled in him the value of earning his due.

"Nothing was given to you, and that's very important because it's true in life," he said. "You've got to have that base and know how to work. ... The one thing that the coaches know is that I will show up, I will go to work and I will do the best I can for them every day."

Bannan, 29, has been a major contributor for the Ravens. Filling in for injured nose tackle Kelly Gregg, Bannan has made eight tackles (second among the defensive linemen behind Haloti Ngata's 10) and a sack in two starts this season.

At 6 feet 3, 310 pounds, Bannan has helped the Ravens rank first in the NFL in total defense (161.5 yards allowed per game).

His teammates have known what some Ravens fans are just beginning to learn about Bannan: He's strong, he's quick and he doesn't stop until the whistle sounds.

"He's always been playing really good," linebacker-defensive end Terrell Suggs said. "He's just been in the shadow of Haloti and Kelly Gregg. ... He's always been very productive and a very good player, and I think you all are just starting to notice it."

A fifth-round draft pick of Buffalo in 2002, Bannan spent four seasons with the Bills before plunging into free agency in March 2006. But his stay on the market was short-lived, as the Ravens offered Bannan a four-year deal with a $3 million signing bonus without even bringing him in for a physical.

"I hadn't even come out here to see anything," Bannan recalled. "And they had to take a leap of faith to take me without bringing me in and saying, 'Hey, this is what we're going to offer you.' That was different."

Originally penciled in to start alongside Gregg, Bannan was bumped when the organization drafted Ngata with the 12th overall pick in 2006. If Bannan was upset, he didn't voice it to his teammates or coaches.

"I think he was probably disappointed, but he understood," defensive line coach Clarence Brooks said. "Once he figured out where he belongs and what we wanted to do with him and how we wanted to do it, he understood his role. Everybody has a role, and once they grasp it and understand it, it works out pretty well."

Assistant head coach-defensive coordinator Rex Ryan refers to Bannan as a "third starter," a label the defensive tackle humbly accepts.

But in an answer befitting his modest nature, Bannan shrugged off the notion that he has replaced Gregg.

"The thing is that Kelly's sorely missed," Bannan said. "We know what Kelly brings to the table. Kelly - and not just in my mind, I think it's evident - is the best nose guard in the NFL. No one does it like him.

"That's a big loss when you've got a guy who's the best and he's not in right now. Losing Dwan Edwards was a big loss, too. But we've found a way to manage, and we'll keep it afloat until Kelly gets back."

Gregg and Ngata are regarded by some as two of the top defensive tackles in the NFL. Defensive end Trevor Pryce said Bannan belongs in that mix.

"I think he's underrated by people who don't watch film," Pryce said. "I think every NFL team we've played against knows him very well and what he does and how well he plays. I really do believe that he is one of the top five tackles in the NFL."

But Bannan is the first to say he has some areas in which he would like to improve. Until then, he's going back to work in the trenches.

"To me, I'm not finished yet," Bannan said. "I feel like I've got a long way to go. I just want to keep plugging away. I'm pleased, but I feel like there's a lot more that I can do. There's a lot of football left."

RAVENS @STEELERS

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Line: Off

justin bannan

Position: Defensive tackle

Size: 6 feet 3, 310 pounds

Age: 29

College: Colorado

How acquired: Signed as free agent before 2006 season after four seasons with the Buffalo Bills

Three things you didn't know:

* Bannan and his older brother Jason breed and raise cutting horses on property they own in Montana.

* One of his favorite players is San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice (Bannan owns an autographed picture of Rice), and Bannan played against Rice twice - against the Oakland Raiders in 2002 and the Seattle Seahawks in 2004.

* The most recent concert Bannan attended featured Van Halen with David Lee Roth in Philadelphia last year. "That was the real deal. Every song sounded like it was right off the CD," said Bannan, who went with Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson, right guard Marshal Yanda and former center Mike Flynn.

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