Jared Gaither has gone from succeeding a likely Hall of Famer to facing a potential one.
Named in June as the heir apparent to 11-time Pro Bowl selection Jonathan Ogden, Gaither, the starting left offensive tackle for the Ravens, is preparing to meet one of Ogden's toughest rivals - Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney.
Freeney, who has led the NFL in sacks, has tormented some of the game's best offensive tackles. But Gaither (Maryland) insisted that his approach this week leading up to the Ravens' game against the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday has not changed from previous weeks.
"I'm going on preparing as if he's any other guy," Gaither said yesterday before practice. "I'm going to watch film, study him, and go out there and do what I can."
Maybe that is the innocence of youth talking, but the first-year starter, 22, has the confidence of his teammates.
"Jared will be on top of it and have the game scouted out," right tackle Adam Terry said. "I'm more than confident in him. He's getting better each week."
This week could be Gaither's toughest test of the season. The 6-foot-1, 268-pound Freeney is a whirling dervish on the field. Freeney can bolt his way past an offensive tackle with a speed rush to the outside on one play and then use one of his patented spin moves to swim past a blocker on the next.
"You've just got to stay low, keep your base, and just stay focused," Gaither said. "You can't let him lull you to sleep [with] a speedy rush, a speedy rush, then he spins inside. So you've just got to stay focused, trust your techniques and trust what the coaches are putting us through [during] the week."
Speed was also on the mind of Ravens coach John Harbaugh yesterday.
"Play fast because Dwight's going to be playing fast," Harbaugh said when asked what advice he would share with Gaither. "Really, when you go against a great player like that at any position, but especially left tackle, technique is the issue. He's got to concentrate on good, fundamental technique."
Gaither has his strengths as well. At 6-9 and 330 pounds, Gaither can overwhelm smaller opponents. In the passing game, Gaither uses his long arms to fend off rushers and keep them away from rookie quarterback Joe Flacco.
"If he gets his arms on anybody, the match should be over," left guard Ben Grubbs said.
The Ravens could employ a couple of methods to help Gaither slow Freeney. The offense could use its unbalanced alignment and shift either Terry or Willie Anderson to Freeney's side, slide tight ends Todd Heap or Daniel Wilcox to the left or have its group of running backs and fullbacks chip Freeney.
The Ravens didn't need such options when Ogden manned the left side of the offensive line.
In three career starts against the Ravens, Freeney collected just two sacks and six tackles against Ogden, including zero sacks and no tackles in the AFC divisional playoffs in the 2006 season. But Indianapolis won all three of Freeney's starts.
Freeney, the Colts' career leader in sacks, posted four consecutive double-digit sacks seasons from 2002 to 2005. But he registered just 5 1/2 sacks in 16 starts in 2006 and 3 1/2 sacks in nine starts in 2007 before going on injured reserve with a Lisfranc sprain in his left foot.
Freeney strained his right hamstring during Indianapolis' 31-27 win at Houston on Sunday and did not practice yesterday. But Gaither, who was limited in practice because of a knee injury, said he expects to face a healthy Freeney.
Gaither said his primary objective is help the team improve to 3-2.
"Our team is 2-2, so I don't have a satisfaction with being 2-2," he said. "I want to win games. ... If we're 2-2, there's obviously more I can do to help the team."
The matchup between Gaither and Freeney is just as intriguing on the Colts' side. Coach Tony Dungy spoke favorably of Gaither's development thus far.
"He's a big guy, first of all, and he looks very athletic [with] long arms," Dungy said. "So what you've got is a big man against a smaller guy and speed and quickness against a big, powerful athlete. Not too much different than it was against Jonathan Ogden where you're facing just a big, massive guy. It will be interesting."
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Line: Colts by 4 1/2