MAN IN THE MID­DLE

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Jeff Zre­biec

Mi­ami Dol­phins coach Adam Gase was re­luc­tant to sin­gle any­one out be­cause when he watches film of the Ravens’ top-ranked rush de­fense, he sees seven men who adeptly play within the team’s scheme. He ob­serves de­fen­sive line­men oc­cu­py­ing block­ers and run­ning lanes, out­side linebackers set­ting the edge and inside linebackers fly­ing to the ball and mak­ing tack­les.

The key to mak­ing it all work, though, stands front and cen­ter on the Ravens de­fense. At 6 feet 1 and 340 pounds, and with hulk­ing arms and tree stumps for legs, nose tackle Bran­don Wil­liams ab­sorbs dou­ble teams on most run­ning plays. He doesn’t make a lot of tack­les, but then again, it’s re­ally not his job to.

His re­spon­si­bil­ity is to fill holes, get pen­e­tra­tion and keep block­ers off other Ravens. If you ask his team­mates and coaches, Wil­liams is do­ing his job about as

well as any­body in the NFL.

“That’s what he was born for,” coach John Har­baugh said. “If you look at his body, he’s built to be a run stop­per and a pocket pusher. He’s built per­fectly for it. God gifted him to do that job.”

Even in the cur­rent pass-happy NFL, the Ravens de­fense fo­cuses, first and fore­most, on stop­ping the run. It’s long been an or­ga­ni­za­tional strength and the cur­rent Ravens are do­ing it bet­ter than any other team in the NFL. They have al­lowed just 74.9 rush­ing yards per game and four touch­downs on the ground, both to­tals lead­ing the league. Just once in fran­chise his­tory have the Ravens al­lowed un­der 75 rush­ing yards per game over a full sea­son, and that was the record-set­ting 2000 de­fense, which al­lowed 60.6.

On Sun­day, the Ravens will face an­other sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge against the Mi­ami Dol­phins (7-4) and sec­ond-year run­ning back Jay Ajayi, who ranks seventh in the NFL in rush­ing yards (847) and is tied for first among backs in yards per carry (5.3).

“Step­ping in the door as a rookie, that’s what they’ve been preach­ing,” Wil­liams said about the team’s suc­cess against the run. “That’s been the stan­dard. To keep that stan­dard has been big. I’m very proud of the front seven, the guys who are in the box and stop­ping the run, es­pe­cially all my de­fen­sive line­men. They’ve been prac­tic­ing well, do­ing great things, ex­e­cut­ing any­thing that coaches have asked them to. I love that we are be­ing a co­he­sive unit and get­ting the job done.”

Six Ravens have more tack­les than Wil­liams and four of them have more sacks. Wil­liams also is play­ing just 60 per­cent of the team’s de­fen­sive snaps. But Wil­liams’ value is re­flected in the 148 com­bined tack­les for inside linebackers Zachary Orr and C.J. Mosley, who have of­ten had un­ob­structed paths to the ball car­rier.

It’s ev­i­dent in the num­ber of times fel­low de­fen­sive line­men Lawrence Guy, Timmy Jerni­gan and Michael Pierce have had to deal with one blocker in­stead of two. And it’s no­tice­able in the num­ber of times op­pos­ing run­ning backs have had to hes­i­tate or cut out­side af­ter fail­ing to find any room in the mid­dle of the Ravens de­fense. Only three op­pos­ing backs — Isa­iah Crow­ell, Matt Forte and Ezekiel El­liott — have gained more than 60 rush­ing yards this sea­son against the Ravens.

“Acou­ple years ago I can re­mem­ber that Haloti [Ngata] didn’t have a bunch of stats and every­body won­dered, ‘Was his value di­min­ish­ing?’ Not to the coaches that were watch­ing the film be­cause if you can’t sin­gle-block the nose tackle, you can make those linebackers look aw­ful good,” de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Dean Pees said. “Those guys are so valu­able to us, and like I’ve said be­fore, it’s kind of like build­ing a base­ball team. It’s kind of right up the mid­dle, and it starts there and then it goes out to the edges and then you kind of fill in from there. He’s just been a great as­set.”

In his fourth year, Wil­liams, a thir­dround draft pick out of Missouri South­ern, has 35 tack­les and one sack. He’s third among NFL nose tack­les in tack­les, trail­ing the New York Giants’ Da­mon Har­ri­son (63) and the Cleve­land Browns’ Danny Shel­ton (45).

“The dis­rup­tion that he cre­ates ev­ery play, whether it’s in the pass game or the rush game, the pen­e­tra­tion that he gets, that’s how we start our de­fense,” Mosley said. “He does the sim­ple things, but the sim­ple things are such a part of our de­fense.”

Op­pos­ing coaches cer­tainly know how Wil­liams can wreck a play. The Dallas Cow­boys, who are lauded for hav­ing the NFL’s best of­fen­sive line, fre­quently dou­ble-teamed Wil­liams. Be­fore fac­ing the Ravens this sea­son, Pitts­burgh Steel­ers coach Mike Tom­lin called Wil­liams “the man inside” and said he “gen­er­ally re­quires two men to block him.”

Pierce, who plays along­side Wil­liams, es­ti­mated that Wil­liams sees a dou­ble team nearly 70 per­cent of the time.

“I feel like if I’m not get­ting dou­ble teams, there’s some­thing I’m not do­ing right,” Wil­liams said. “That’s a re­spect kind of thing, I feel. I take that as a com­pli­ment be­cause you have to put two peo­ple on me to stop me. That gives time for [Pierce, Guy or Jerni­gan] to get one-on-one block­ing and get to the passer or run­ning back. I ap­pre­ci­ate it and I wel­come it.”

As for the at­ten­tion and praise, Wil­liams is just fine when that’s doled out to his team­mates and not him. He’s been re­garded as one of the top nose tack­les in the league the past two years, and he has yet to make the Pro Bowl. Ear­lier this year, CBS Sports colum­nist Pete Prisco la­beled Wil­liams the most un­der­rated player in the NFL.

Wil­liams, though, is com­fort­able mea­sur­ing his play by how many tack­les Mosley and Orr get or by how many rush­ing yards the Ravens al­low, or even by how many times he is dou­ble-teamed. That’s the na­ture of what he does.

“It’s not a glo­ri­ous po­si­tion, but it’s a very im­por­tant one,” said Pierce, who has been men­tored by Wil­liams. “You just have to be phys­i­cally and men­tally tough. First of all, you have to want to do it. You have to want to be the man in the trenches. You have to want to be the king of the jun­gle, if you will. It def­i­nitely takes a dif­fer­ent style of per­son­al­ity. It’s not a glo­ri­ous, run-up­the-field type job. You just have to want to be one of the tough­est guys on the field at all times.”

Hav­ing seen first­hand how­much­play­ers such as Sam Adams, Tony Si­ra­gusa, Kelly Gregg and Ngata have meant to some great Ravens de­fenses, team of­fi­cials ap­pre­ci­ate Wil­liams’ im­por­tance. They also know that they have a pend­ing de­ci­sion to make on their nose tackle, who is due to be­come a free agent af­ter the sea­son.

The Ravens want to re-sign Wil­liams, but the ques­tion is whether they feel it will be fi­nan­cially fea­si­ble. They’ll have myr­iad needs this off­sea­son, and Wil­liams is headed for a huge pay­day if what the top free-agent in­te­rior de­fen­sive line­men re­ceived last year is any in­di­ca­tion. Har­ri­son got a five-year, $46.25 mil­lion deal with the Giants and the Jack­sonville Jaguars signed Ma­lik Jack­son to a six-year, $85.5 mil­lion deal.

“I don’t have time to think about it,” Wil­liams said of his pend­ing free agency. “We still got games to play, places that we want to go this year. I’m not go­ing to worry about any­thing I can’t con­trol. Right now, I’m fo­cused on the here and now. I’m fo­cused on Mi­ami.”

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Nose tackle Bran­don Wil­liams rushes Ben­gals quar­ter­back Andy Dal­ton in the Ravens’ 19-14 vic­tory Sun­day. Wil­liams has played only 60 per­cent of the team’s de­fen­sive snaps, but he is a vi­tal part of a unit that leads the NFL in rush­ing de­fense.

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