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Preston: Michael Pierce still plugging away in middle of new-look Ravens defense

It is one of the most frequently asked questions about the Ravens throughout training camp: Where is Michael Pierce?

All last season, he was starting at nose tackle on the defensive line, usually next to defensive tackle Brandon Williams and ends Willie Henry or Carl Davis.

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Now, he is the backup nose tackle behind Williams, but the coaching staff refuses to say he is No. 2.

“They are both starters as far as we’re concerned,” Ravens first-year defensive coordinator Don Martindale said.

That’s open to debate, but the 6-foot, 340-pound Pierce will still play a large role this season, no pun intended. Martindale’s new approach has included the Ravens running more multiple fronts in training camp, using a lot of odd- and three-man looks. At times, they have even run the “46” defense created by late Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.

According to Pierce, he graded out well at the end of last season when he finished with 49 tackles, tied for seventh best on the team and tops among defensive linemen. But it appears during the offseason that the Ravens wanted to get more out of their pass rush, which is why they are starting Brent Urban and Henry at the end and tackle positions, respectively, and putting both Williams and Pierce over the center.

Both play the run well and can control the middle of the field.

“Right now, they can play me where they want, but Brandon and I are both running with the ones, even though I am mostly with the twos,” Pierce said. “I don’t worry about who is starting. I just try to come out each day, do my best and let the chips fall where they may.”

Actually, teams need two quality nose tackles. The position might be the most rugged in the game, and these players take a lot of punishment because they often get double or sometimes triple teamed.

Williams missed four games last season because of injuries. Though short by NFL linemen standards, Pierce is the ideal nose tackle. He has a wide girth and super strength, which allows him to be a space eater.

He might have the strongest lower body on the team, able to squat 725 pounds. He once was timed having finished the 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds. That’s cooking.

Pierce’s feelings aren’t hurt because he is behind Williams. They are good friends off the field and the Ravens know about Pierce’s work ethic. In the 2016 draft, 24 tackles were taken ahead of him even though Pierce played in every game of his college career and started 32 of 47. He had 145 tackles when he finished at Football Championship Subdivision Samford in Alabama, but had to sign with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent.

The motivation will always be there.

“During the offseason, I don’t miss a day. It’s 100 percent every day,” Pierce said of his training. “I want to be one of the best nose guards in the league. Right now, things are going well. I think I am getting more of a pass rush now.”

The Ravens haven’t gotten a steady pass rush from the defensive line for years. The pressure usually had to come from outside linebackers such as Terrell Suggs or Elvis Dumervil, or as the result of blitzes or pressure off the perimeter from cornerbacks or safeties.

But a truly great defense gets pressure from the front four, which is why the Ravens have gone with the odd- and three-man fronts in training camp.

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“Getting pressure is something I wanted to focus on more this season,” Pierce said. “We’re starting to diversify more up front, run more three-man fronts to take advantage of more one-on-ones from inside. Of course, we’ve got to win those matchups, but it will change how some teams need to block us.”

Urban and Henry don’t have the power of either Pierce or Williams, but they are more elusive and run better. In theory, the Ravens are giving some of their defensive linemen more freedom.

“The first thing an offensive line has to do is come up and determine whether they’re going to treat the front as an even front or an odd front,” coach John Harbaugh said. “So, if we can make that a little tougher for them to do, or at least force them to take that step, that should help us.

“The goal is to try and get some free runners. You can get a one-on-one with the center there pretty well if they want to fan [the protection] and handle your edge rusher. If they want to slide it, then you have a chance to get a mismatch on the running back with an edge rusher.”

It’s been a trade-off for Pierce. He won’t play as many game day snaps as last season, but he’ll get his share of playing time as a starter, and probably more opportunities in goal-line or short-yardage situations.

And, of course, he worked all offseason to become a better pass rusher.

“I don’t think centers and guards will be able to slide to me and Brandon as much,” Pierce said. “You’re going to see a big difference coming up this season, but I can’t say anymore.”

And then he smiled.

“I don’t want to give too much. You’ll see,” he said.

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