Ray Lewis. Ed Reed. Bart Scott. Terrell Suggs. Kelly Gregg. Samari Rolle. The Ravens have plenty of big name players defensively. But nose tackle Haloti Ngata and safety Jim Leonhard have been flying under the radar.
Of course, Leonhard isn't going to get credit because the other safety, Ed Reed, is arguably the best safety in the history of the National Football League. Haloti Ngata isn't going to get credit because it's not often a nose tackle gets credit for anything a team accomplishes defensively—much less a team that has Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Bart Scott at linebacker!
Let's start with Ngata. The 6'4", 345-pound nose tackle has anchored the Ravens' defense and given centers problems all year. He had 55 tackles, two interceptions, and one sack. What defensive linemen has two interceptions?
"He's been a huge part of our success," said Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. "He's started from day one and he's only gotten better and better. Now I know there are some great defensive tackles in the league, but I wouldn't trade this guy for anybody."
Indeed he has and indeed I wouldn't. Ngata is one of the best defensive tackles in the league in his third year in football and is a true Pro Bowl snub. Ngata said the promotion to the NFL wasn't easy. "I felt lost at first because everything was happening fast and the coaches expected you to learn the plays fast," said the Samoan lineman.
Last week, Ed Reed ran back an interception for a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins. But not many realize it was Ngata's block that created an opening.
After Reed crossed the Dolphins 25-yard line, an aware Ngata saw Dolphins receiver Ted Ginn making a pursuit angle to catch Reed. But Ngata wouldn't have it. He crushed the receiver as Reed made it to the end zone in a play that arguably changed the ball game.
In today's game against Tennessee, Ngata made four tackles. In a Nov. 9 game against Houston, Ngata made one of the best plays I've ever seen. Sage Rosenfels and the Texans were on the Ravens' one-yard line. For some reason, they decided to pass. Haloti Ngata tipped a ball intended for a wide open Owen Daniels. Ngata had the presence of mind to turn around and pick it off.
"If there's a better [defensive tackle] in the league, I haven't had a chance to spend any time watching him," Head Coach Jon Harbaugh said. "He's a dominant player in there and he can do a little bit of everything. He can rush the passer, he can play the run, he plays screens and he lines up at tight end and runs routes, and he's a great guy to be around. He's one of the finest human beings I've ever been around."
Ngata has been damn near impossible to block all season long. "No one man can block Haloti," Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "He's a physical man-child. He's a beast out there and it's proven that it takes more than one guy to block Haloti, and that frees up a lot of guys on the defense."
Ngata is one of the reasons the Ravens run defense has been so dominant the last three seasons, mostly 2006 and this year, when the Ravens finished first and third in run defense, respectively. Before the 2006 NFL Draft, Ray Lewis said he wanted a big defensive linemen to free up guys on defense, like Suggs said. Lewis has that in Ngata.
Let's take a look at safety Jim Leonhard.
Leonhard has been absolutely phenomenal this year. The Bills released him after having several very low-impact years with Buffalo. The Ravens picked him up in a deal not many seemed to notice. But it got noticed.
In Week three, Ravens starting safety Dawan Landry went down with a concussion. That left a spot for Leonhard. The 5'8" inch "White Lightning" has been nothing short of miraculous. In that same game, he had a great punt return, a sack and a pass batted down.
"This is a team where you have to earn respect and you have to go out there every day and do your job and make plays. That's been my role since I've been in the NFL," said Leonhard, who is also the Ravens' punt returner. "As cliché as it is, you really are only one play away and at this level, they expect you to keep it up at that top level. When it's your role, it's your job on this team to be prepared." Leonhard said.
And make plays he has. Counting the playoffs, he has 81 tackles, two interceptions, one forced fumble and one touchdown. He has been outstanding in punt returning and kick returning. During the season, he had 28 returns for 395 yards and averaged over 11 yards per punt return.
His postseason play has been ridiculous. He had seven tackles, a sack, an interception and a pass deflection against Miami. Against Tennessee, he had five tackles, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.
Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan knew it was a good move. "Our pro personnel guy brought Jim in for a tryout weekend," remembered Ryan. "Jim learned our defense in a day. George [pro personnel man George Kokinis] asked me what we thought. I said: 'We ran him with the first team by the second practice.' He's a big-time athlete, but not the biggest. He plays like a Raven. He's smart, passionate and physical; our kind of guy."
The signing and the impact Leonhard has had on the Baltimore Ravens again proves how good Ozzie Newsome is at finding talent. We are talking about a General Manager who has drafted Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Jon Ogden, Terrell Suggs, Joe Flacco, Haloti Ngata, Jason Brown, Jamal Lewis, Peter Boulware, Todd Heap, and Le'Ron McClain.
The signing of Leonhard is just a minor plus when you throw him in the group of those great football players.
Leonhard has had a brilliant season and the Ravens want to and should re-sign him to a long term contract. The guy has a bright future.
Going into the game against Tennessee, the Titans have an advantage at those positions—and others. Albert Haynesworth is considered a better nose tackle then Ngata. Michael Griffin is considered a better safety then Leonhard. Collins is considered a better quarterback then Flacco.
Cortland Finnegan is considered a better corner then Fabian Washington. Jeff Fisher is considered a much better coach then Jon Harbaugh.
A Twix Bar: $2. A Honus Wagner baseball card: $2.3 million. Ngata, Leonhard, Flacco, Washington and Harbaugh prepping for an AFC Championship Game and Haynesworth, Griffin, Collins, Finnegan, and Fisher watching it: priceless.