The Ravens were dealt a devastating blow Thursday with the four-game suspension of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy.
Without Ngata for the stretch run as the Ravens (7-5) attempt to qualify for the playoffs, the defense lost arguably its lone remaining dominant player.
At 6 feet 4, 340 pounds, Ngata is a rare athlete who's capable of stacking blockers to keep linebackers free to run to the football while also penetrating the backfield to shut down the run, disrupting and intercepting passes and rushing the passer.
The Ravens have no one else like Ngata, a five-time Pro Bowl selection who has 32 tackles, two forced fumbles, two interceptions and seven pass deflections this season. Ngata, who said in a statement that the positive test was because of Adderall use, has recorded 528 tackles, 25.5 sacks, five interceptions, six forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries in his career.
On the field, the player most suited to assume Ngata's role as a starting defensive tackle in their 3-4 defense is rookie defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan.
Jernigan is a disruptive interior lineman who was drafted in the second round out of Florida State and is starting to make more plays now that he has recovered from arthroscopic knee surgery earlier this season to repair damage to his meniscus. In eight games as a reserve, Jernigan has flashed his skill with a dozen tackles and two sacks.
However, Jernigan is expected to be in a rotation of players because he hasn't been playing many snaps each week. He played 17 snaps against the San Diego Chargers when he sacked quarterback Philip Rivers and has never played more than 29 snaps in a single game. The Ravens also likely will use Lawrence Guy and DeAngelo Tyson, if he's active, in a rotation at defensive tackle.
The Ravens learned of the impending suspension for Ngata on Wednesday general manager Ozzie Newsome heard from Ngata's agent, Mike McCartney, that the 2006 first-round draft pick had failed a drug test. The punishment for one of the franchise's most decorated and popular players shocked and saddened team officials, according to sources.
Ngata was extremely upset and contrite when meeting with the team about his NFL discipline, per sources. The plan for Ngata is to train back in Utah, his offseason home, during his suspension while hoping the Ravens qualify for the playoffs, in which he would be eligible to play after he's reinstated Dec. 29.
Rather than appeal the suspension after hearing from the NFL, Ngata accepted it and decided to take his punishment right away, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. Per the source, Ngata's reaction when he got the disciplinary letter from the NFL was, 'I'm guilty and I deserve to be punished. Haloti wanted to get it over with, take his punishment and try to get back for the playoffs."
One reason that Ngata was taking Adderall, per a source, was to deal with a lack of sleep due to staying up with his children.
"Haloti feels terrible about the mistake he's made," McCartney, told The Baltimore Sun. "I have a lot of respect for Haloti. He owned up to it immediately. He never pointed the finger at anybody or anything. I'm confident Haloti will work really hard and be ready for the playoffs."
Next year is the final year of Ngata's $61 million contract, and he's due a $8.5 million base salary and carries a $16 million salary-cap figure. The Ravens were expected to try to negotiate an extension after the season that would allow Ngata to finish his career in Baltimore. That could still happen, according to a source. The leverage in negotiations after this NFL discipline at the most inopportune time obviously has tilted toward the Ravens.
The Ravens do save $2 million against the salary cap and in cash this year with Ngata's lost salary of four game checks. The Ravens would have gladly paid Ngata the money, though, wanting to have him on the field.
Instead, the Ravens are facing an uncertain immediate future as they try to adjust on the fly to play the Miami Dolphins on Sunday in a pivotal AFC road game with major playoff implications.