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Ravens lineman Haloti Ngata slides over to fill spot vacated by Arthur Jones

The free-agent departure of Arthur Jones in March had an immediate effect on the Ravens' locker room, where the defensive tackle regularly held court and displayed his boisterous, friendly personality.

One of the team's most popular players, Jones emerged as a top defensive contributor last season. He also became a high-priced commodity the Ravens ultimately decided they could no longer afford. Minutes into the first day of free agency, the Indianapolis Colts signed Jones to a five-year, $33million contract that included $16million guaranteed.

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Although Jones' departure represented a significant loss, the Ravens were better equipped than most NFL teams to absorb the shake-up to their front seven.

The primary reason the Ravens appear capable of replacing Jones is the presence of five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata. Ngata has shifted from the nose tackle position he manned last season to Jones' old three-technique defensive tackle spot.

Playing at a leaner 340 pounds, the 6-foot-4 Ngata looks comfortable outside.

The position change could allow the Ravens to capitalize on Ngata's blend of size, speed, mobility and pass-rushing skills. He has been tough to block so far at his new position, where it should be more difficult for offenses to double-team the 30-year-old the way they frequently did a year ago.

"I think it's a good idea to have Ngata play there, and for him to be lighter," said Greg Cosell, an NFL Films analyst. "Ngata's kind of a freakish guy. The way he moves at that weight is remarkable. This could also mean a lot for his long-term durability. He's not a kid anymore.

"Ngata could theoretically do anything on the defensive line: nose tackle, defensive tackle, defensive end. It doesn't matter. The guy can dominate wherever you line him up. Arthur Jones is a really good player, but he's not Ngata."

Jones' contributions weren't small, though.

He had 53 tackles and four sacks last season. Since being drafted in the fifth round out of Syracuse in 2010, Jones has had 118 career tackles and 8.5 sacks.

"Arthur was an amazing player, great guy, great friend," said Brandon Williams, who replaced Ngata as the starting nose tackle. "He's not here with us now, but we still have to play football. As much of a great player as he was, I feel like, as a team, everyone stepped up to make up for losing him."

Entering his ninth NFL season and due an $8.5million base salary each of the next two seasons, Ngata led the defensive line last season with 52 tackles. Yet he had only 1.5 sacks, after having five or more in each of his past three seasons.

Ngata is heavier than most of the right tackles he will face this season. He's also generally faster than they are.

"In a 3-4 front, Haloti is basically playing with his hand down and the Ravens are putting him to the strength of the formation," said former NFL strong safety Matt Bowen, who covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. "Even when he was bigger, Haloti was one of the best athletes on the defensive line. He's so quick off the ball and so powerful at the point of attack. He can slip off blocks.

"Having him lighter is a great idea because he'll have an even better burst at the line of scrimmage. I love the outside pressure they should have with Ngata [and outside linebackers] Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. It gives you a chance to win a lot of one-on-one situations and be very tough up front."

During the preseason, Ngata looked more energetic now that he's not playing a meat-grinder position such as nose tackle, where he was partly responsible for occupying blockers to keep them away from the linebackers. Ngata also dealt with chop blocks from centers and guards, and he was hampered by shoulder and knee injuries throughout the season.

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"I think Haloti's comfortable being in that position and being able to use his athleticism from the three-technique spot to break down offensive lines in the run game and passing game," defensive end Chris Canty said. "It's exciting to play alongside him."

Williams is a stocky 6-1, 335-pound strongman from Missouri Southern State who bench-pressed 225 pounds 38 times at the NFL scouting combine last year before joining the Ravens.

"Brandon Williams does a great job inside, so I think it was a great fit that they just bumped me outside," Ngata said. "I'm just happy that I can keep on playing."

Williams has been studying old videos of retired Ravens nose tackle Kelly Gregg, who anchored the middle for a decade in Baltimore and had 548 career tackles and 20.5 sacks.

"Me and [defensive line coach Clarence Brooks] talk, and he put some film on my iPad, and for everyone, not just for me, to look at what he did and how he played," Williams said of Gregg. "So I've definitely been doing that and trying to work that into the repertoire. Playmaking ability, his hands, his feet, the way he gets off blocks, the way he moves, everything."

Like Gregg, Williams has rare strength. Both have bench-pressed over 500 pounds. Williams is built low to the ground, as Gregg was.

"Brandon Williams has played very well, and his best game was against Washington" in the preseason, coach John Harbaugh said. "He was dominant, absolutely controlled the middle of the line of scrimmage.

"I'm excited about it, but he has to keep going, has to keep getting better. We don't want him to get too happy with himself, and he's not that kind of guy who would, anyway."

As a rookie last year, Williams was limited by a toe injury and finished with six tackles, one sack and a fumble recovery in seven games.

He has embraced the dirty work that goes with playing inside and fighting through double teams.

"I love it," said Williams, who has cut his body fat to 22 percent from the 28 percent to 30 percent it was as a rookie. "I've been playing [nose tackle] since eighth grade, and it just fits. I'm stocky and short.

"It also gets Haloti on the edge and rushing the passer a little bit and takes double teams away from him. So it's good to be the nose guard."

Despite losing promising defensive ends Brent Urban and Kapron Lewis-Moore to season-ending injuries, the Ravens still have plenty of depth.

That includes defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, whom the Ravens drafted in the second round this year out of national champion Florida State.

Jernigan could provide a gap-shooting presence in relief of Ngata. He's stout enough to play inside and versatile enough to play defensive end or behind Ngata.

Ngata is hoping a deep defensive line will boost his durability.

"Oh, definitely, because [Jernigan] is playing really well, and Brandon Williams and Chris" are, too, Ngata said. "We're going to have a good rotation in there and stay fresh throughout the season."

Former NFL general manager Charley Casserly doesn't see the Ravens taking a step back without Jones.

"I think Haloti can play anywhere because he's such a physically strong player who's so tough to move," said Casserly, an NFL Network analyst. "With his weight down, his quickness should allow him to have more of an upfield surge.

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"You're going to lose players, and Jones was a great signing for the Colts, but the Ravens have Jernigan. He could be another Arthur Jones in the making."

awilson@baltsun.com

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No more Arthur Jones

Here's a look at how the Ravens are replacing defensive tackle Arthur Jones, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts in March:

The new starter: Haloti Ngata, 30, takes over at Jones' vacated three-technique defensive tackle position. Ngata was the nose tackle last season, but the 6-foot-4, 340-pound veteran has shifted outside, where his size, strength and athleticism should make him effective.

The replacement inside: Brandon Williams, 25, is the new anchor in the middle of the defense, replacing Ngata. A 2013 third-round draft pick, Williams has ideal size at 6-1, 335 pounds, has bench-pressed 525 pounds and can walk on his hands despite his massive bulk.

The key newcomer: Timmy Jernigan, 21, is a rookie second-round pick from Florida State with gap-shooting ability. He's faster and lighter than Ngata and Williams at 6-2, 300 pounds.

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