The Ravens replaced one tough guy with another tough guy. Maybe even tougher.
When the Ravens put nose tackle Kelly Gregg on injured reserve early in the season, there were doubts about anyone measuring up to his standards. After all, Gregg had established himself as one of the best run stoppers in the NFL.
But as the Ravens head into Sunday's wild-card playoff game against the Dolphins in Miami, the Ravens have the league's No. 3 run defense (81.4 yards a game), and a big, big reason is Justin Bannan, Gregg's replacement.
"Obviously, I was disappointed and sad for Kelly," said Bannan, in his seventh season out of Colorado. "I know what kind of competitor he is, and he can't stand to be out there and not playing with his teammates. Also, I knew the role I had to undertake. I didn't bat an eye because I knew I was ready for it."
Bannan is 10th on the team in tackles with 45, 10 behind fellow tackle Haloti Ngata. When teams try to run against the Ravens, it's a game of pick your poison. On one side is the 6-foot-4, 345-pound Ngata. On the other is the 6-3, 310-pound Bannan.
Bannan is the one with the short-cropped hair - and no neck. He has a huge chest and the biggest biceps on the team. He might not be as strong as Gregg or Ngata, but he's nastier than both.
"Toughness, he has had that toughness from Day One," Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle said. "I didn't think we knew he could play as many plays as he has, but every time he had gotten in the game in the past, he got the job done.
"As far as strength, I would take Kelly over Justin. But in a fight, I'm taking Bannan. He'll pick up anything to beat anybody."
Bannan would be a starter on most NFL teams. In fact, when he signed with the Ravens in 2006 as an unrestricted free agent from the Buffalo Bills, he was expected to be a starter teaming with Gregg on the inside.
Instead, the Ravens drafted Ngata with the No. 12 overall pick in the first round. Ngata and Gregg became the starting tackle tandem.
"I'm real surprised he is here," Ngata said, "because he could start anywhere else. Even when I was starting as a rookie, I was surprised because of the way he practiced, the way he prepared."
Ngata watches Bannan a lot. He likes his explosiveness and the way Bannan comes off the ball. He also likes Bannan's toughness. Rolle says Bannan and outside linebacker Jarret Johnson could form a tag team in the WWE.
Both are ornery. Both like country music and being outdoors fishing or hunting. Bannan also likes horseback riding.
"I couldn't form a tag team with Justin because I have a better body," said Ngata, laughing. "And of course, I'm the strongest. But seriously, we're all strong in certain areas. Kelly has those short little arms, so he is strong in his chest. Bannan is really strong in his legs. Me? I'm just strong. Period."
Bannan, Ngata and Gregg laugh a lot. Before Gregg's injury, the Ravens had a three-player rotation at tackle. Now, it's four with reserves Marques Douglas and Brandon McKinney backing up Ngata and Bannan.
The foursome has great chemistry.
"This defense is the best," said Bannan, who makes his offseason home in Sacramento, Calif. "Not just because we do good things together, but we're a close-knit group. We're good people with good character, and you don't always find that in this business."
You also don't often find reserves as good as the starters.
"Justin Bannan has brought a lot here to this team," Ngata said. "You kind of don't miss Kelly because of the way Justin has come in and played like a starter. Justin has done a great job, and we're fortunate to have him on the team."
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