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OWINGS MILLS — The education of Haloti Ngata has amounted to an advanced NFL finishing school.
The Baltimore Ravensâ€™ massive rookie defensive tackle has been schooled by nose guard Kelly Gregg on the finer points of run-stuffing, and how to occupy blockers to clear a path for inside linebackers Ray Lewis and Bart Scott. Defensive line coach Clarence Brooks has constantly drilled the first-round draft pick from Oregon on how to use his hands to shed blocks, and to resist his natural tendency to bull straight ahead with his helmet and shoulder pads.
And veteran defensive end Trevor Pryce has given the athletic 6-foot-4, 340-pounder savvy hints on how to rush the passer, tutelage that paid off with his first NFL sack two games ago.
While far from a finished product, Ngata is emerging as as a more polished interior force for the NFL’s top-ranked defense as the AFC North champions prepare for Saturdayâ€™s 4:30 p.m. divisional playoff against the Indianapolis Colts at M&T Bank Stadium.
â€œI feel like Iâ€™ve been doing what they brought me here and pay me to do, but I can still get a lot better,â€ Ngata said. â€œIâ€™ve been lucky to have guys on the team that are willing to help me. Kelly and Trevor have been great, and coach Brooks has been showing me how if I use my hands, itâ€™s a lot easier for me to make plays.
â€œTo be on this great team and the No. 1 defense in the league, itâ€™s a real blessing. I’m just happy everything has worked out the way it did."
Humble and soft-spoken, Ngata has quietly fit in with a rowdy defense known for its flamboyant athletes. His role has been a complementary one, taking up space, pushing the pocket backwards so Pryce, Terrell Suggs, Adalius Thomas and Scott can attack the backfield. Ngata has consistently recorded tackles when teams try to run up the middle.
Ngata has registered 48 tackles, one sack and, most notably, returned an interception 60 yards in his first NFL game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before nearly collapsing in exhaustion.
â€œHaloti has had a heck of a year,â€ Brooks said. â€œHeâ€™s improved a lot. Heâ€™s really learned the game, how to play and how to prepare. Weâ€™re very happy with how things have gone. I think he has realized that he canâ€™t run everybody over.
â€œIt took him a while to get used to the speed of the game, but he has grasped things very quickly. Heâ€™s very smart, and it doesnâ€™t take him long to get a point. Whatever you tell him, he remembers it and tries to apply it on the field."
Although Ngata has started 16 games, a much more extended workload than he experienced as a consensus college All-American, he hasnâ€™t worn down. Ngata has gotten high marks for his stamina and durability, rarely appearing on the injury report.
â€œI didnâ€™t like how in college you would have a whole month off before the bowl game, and I felt like that got me away from being in game shape,â€ Ngata said. â€œThis way, youâ€™re still in shape. My body still feels good and healthy. Plus, weâ€™re winning, which helps a lot.â€
What also helps is Ngataâ€™s intelligence and easygoing personality. Whereas some highly-paid draft picks come in with the attitude that thereâ€™s nothing they can be taught, Ngata has eagerly sought counsel and shows gratitude for advice.
â€œBeing eager to learn really helps him,â€ Brooks said. â€œHeâ€™s a great kid, very mature for being only 23 years old. Everybody loves this guy and likes being around him.â€
Baltimore (13-3) finished the regular season ranked second in rushing defense, allowing just 75.9 rushing yards per contest. Ngata has literally been at the center of that effort, plowing into guards and centers with his bulky forearms. The Ravens arenâ€™t placing any ceiling on his potential.
â€œNgata is what Ngata is,â€ Pryce said. â€œI told him the first day he got here the same thing Neil Smith told me when I got drafted: â€˜You have no idea how good youâ€™re going to be.â€™ I think heâ€™s figured it out now, and everybodyâ€™s excited for him.â€
A native of Salt Lake City, Utah who lost both of his parents over the past few years, Ngata initially lived with his uncle in suburban Baltimore before his brother moved in during the season. Adjusting to a new city hasnâ€™t been a problem as Ngata has discovered several steakhouses — Flemingâ€™s is his favorite — while hanging out with offensive guard Edwin Mulitalo, a fellow Polynesian.
â€œI like Baltimore a lot,â€ Ngata said. â€œThis is a fun place to live, and the people are nice.â€
Ngata was the player that general manager Ozzie Newsome targeted months before the draft. However, he nearly wound up with the Cleveland Browns until Baltimore guaranteed his acquisition by swapping first-round picks with Browns general manager Phil Savage and throwing in a sixth-round choice to land Ngata with the 12th overall pick.
Instead of playing on a 4-12 Cleveland team bereft of talent and experience, Ngata is learning on the job with a veteran-laden defense that spearheads a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
â€œItâ€™s been perfect,â€ Ngata said. â€œI just thank God for blessing me to be on a team like this and for surrounding myself with good people. I never thought this could happen. I couldnâ€™t have asked for anything better.â€
NOTES: The Ravens have been installed as a four-point favorite over the Colts. â€¦ The last time the Ravens played Indianapolis was in the 2005 season opener, losing 24-7 at M&T Bank Stadium. "Playing Baltimore is tough enough," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning told reporters after his team’s 23-8 wild-card win over the Kansas City Chiefs. "Add to that the fact you have to go there, which I think is one of the tougher places to play. It will be a tremendous challenge."â€¦ Manning is 3-2 at home in the playoffs, 1-4 away from the RCA Dome. … During their 11-year history, the Ravens have hosted two playoff games, losing to the Tennessee Titans in January 2004 and defeating the Denver Broncos in December 2000. â€¦ The last time the Colts played in the postseason in Baltimore was on Christmas Eve in 1977, losing 37-31 in double overtime to the Oakland Raiders. Won on a third touchdown pass to tight end Dave Casper, he helped send the game into overtime with a dramatic 42-yard reception that set up the game-tying field goal. It was famously dubbed as the â€œGhost to the Post.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland