By Aaron Wilson, The Baltimore Sun
3:41 PM PST, January 19, 2013
Although cameras will attempt to capture every move by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and other key players like Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice and inside linebacker Ray Lewis, the grunt work on the offensive and defensive lines figures to be pivotal in Sunday's AFC championship game.
"Pretty much every game is decided in the trenches, and then by guys making plays," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Whoever wins the trenches has a great chance to win the game."
Despite rising scores and a quicker pace, football always comes back to the primordial, hard-nosed roots of blocking and tackling.
In the AFC divisional round, the Ravens were much more physical than the Denver Broncos.
They sacked Peyton Manning three times as Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs shoved Broncos offensive tackle Ryan Clady into the backfield for a pair of sacks.
Offensively, the Ravens outrushed Denver with old-fashioned double-team blocks, punctuated by a timely pull-and-lead block by Pro Bowl offensive guard Marshal Yanda to clear out Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard on a 32-yard run by Rice.
"I think it's huge on both sides, our offensive line and defensive line against theirs," Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "If we can create some pressure on Brady, then it's definitely going to put pressure on their offense. Hopefully, we can do that and do that as much as we can, and same thing with our offensive line. If they can protect Joe, then definitely we'll have a good game."
Finding a way to block Ngata is high on the Patriots' list of priorities.
Powerful and fast for his size at 6 feet 4, 340 pounds, Ngata has five sacks and is regarded as one of the most dominant interior linemen in the game.
"Ngata is everything that is advertised," Patriots center Ryan Wendell said. "He is a big, powerful guy, skillful, quick feet, good hands, knows how to get to the ball, understands football, knows how to beat offensive linemen's blocks. He is a great defensive tackle and he is going to be a huge test for us."
In Week 3, when the Ravens came away with a 31-30 win at M&T Bank Stadium, the Patriots failed to contain Ngata.
He recorded a season-high nine tackles, including seven solos, and split a sack.
"Haloti, he's a very good player," Patriots left guard Logan Mankins said. "I think everyone knows that. He does a lot of different things for them, he lines up everywhere. I think that's one of the things that makes him very good. He's very versatile for someone his size. He's always a handful for whatever team's playing them and we'll have to do a good job against him."
That's easier said than done, though.
Ngata isn't the only massive player on the Ravens' defensive line.
Between Ngata, nose guards Terrence Cody and Ma'ake Kemoeatu and defensive end Arthur Jones, the Ravens average 335.25 pounds across the defensive front.
"Their defense in anchored by those big guys up front," Wendell said. "They have Ngata and Cody and then behind them you have Jones coming in. I mean, they are solid all the way across the board. They are big human beings."
Jones, whose younger brother, Chandler Jones, is a starting rookie defensive end for the Patriots, had a career-high 4 1/2 sacks in the regular season.
"We respect them and they respect us," Arthur Jones said. "We know what we're going to get, and it is going to be a battle, man on man and mano-a-mano."
Mankins has faced Ngata many times with mixed results. In his eighth NFL season, Mankins is a formidable enough blocker that Ngata singled him out for praise.
"He's a great player that has been playing a long time," Ngata said. "We've had a lot of battles, and he's a solid offensive lineman. I've always said he's probably one of the better offensive linemen in the league."
The Ravens' reconfigured offensive line has allowed just two sacks in the first two playoff games.
Since installing Bryant McKinnie as the new left tackle prior to a wild-card playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts, shifting Michael Oher to right tackle and moving rookie Kelechi Osemele inside from right tackle to left guard, the pass-blocking has improved substantially. And the Ravens have rushed for 325 yards and two touchdowns on 71 carries in the postseason.
"From just watching film, they look pretty good," Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes said. "Actually, they definitely demand the physical presence up front. I just think they get off on that front five. If they are firing off the ball and Ray [Rice] is doing what he does, I think we will have a big problem if we don't come out and do our job."
The Ravens offensive line has its work cut out for them. They're bracing for the matchup with Patriots nose guard Vince Wilfork.
Wilfork, who had 59 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles during the regular season, is almost impossible to budge inside, using his stocky build to overwhelm blockers.
"That low center of gravity, Vince is not the tallest of guys," Rice said. "He knows that, but he's a force in the middle. I've always loved battling, going against a guy like that, because he is going to give it everything he has."
A five-time Pro Bowl selection, Wilfork also recovered four fumbles this season.
"Vince is Vince," Yanda said. "He's a great player. He disrupts a lot of offenses. He's a force in there. We will have to have him blocked and get after him and contain him. It starts with him up front for us, creating problems.
"He's a real big guy, but he also has quickness and a lot of power. He's not just a guy that we will be able to cover up. He has a lot of lateral quickness, which makes him good."
Wilfork sounded hazy on the details of how he disrupted the Ravens' offense last season in the AFC title game, when he pushed around veteran center Matt Birk and had six tackles (three solo) and one sack.
"Really not too much, because it won't have anything to do with this time," Wilfork said. "I just remember winning, so hopefully I will have that same feeling."
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