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OWINGS MILLS — The Baltimore Ravens’ offensive line is bracing for a hefty challenge, squaring off Monday night with a New England Patriots defense overshadowed by their glittery offensive counterparts.
The Patriots’ third-ranked defense literally represents a heavy load to move off the line of scrimmage.
Especially a bulky front seven led by Pro Bowl defensive end Richard Seymour (6-foot-6, 310 pounds), nose guard Vince Wilfork (6-foot-2, 325 pounds) and defensive end Ty Warren (6-foot-5, 300 pounds).
"You watch them, and they’re a tough, physical front," Ravens rookie offensive tackle Marshal Yanda said. "They’re an older group. They’re experienced and they play well together. You’ve got to be focused on the details, play hard and play physical."
New England is only allowing 281.5 yards of total offense per contest and 86.2 rushing yards.
Led by outside linebacker Mike Vrabel’s 9 1/2 sacks, the Patriots have 31 sacks for the year and 52 quarterback hits. They’ve also intercepted 16 passes and returned two for touchdowns.
In particular, Wilfork has been a destructive, pocket-collapsing force in the middle.
"He is what he is," rookie offensive guard Ben Grubbs said of Wilfork, who leads the AFC Pro Bowl balloting at his position. "He’s a big guy, a very strong guy. When you play against him, you need to bring your ‘A’ game, stay low and try to get leverage."
Inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi leads the Patriots with 64 tackles followed by Warren’s 56 with Vrabel and former Baltimore All-Pro linebacker Adalius Thomas both recording 53 stops.
It’s definitely a deep defense when perennial All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau is actually a rotation player, albeit one with 44 tackles and three interceptions.
"You look at that whole front seven, it’s a larger front three and the linebackers are big, too," offensive tackle Adam Terry said. "Wilfork, Seymour and Warren, those guys are bigger, powerful and more athletic than most big guys in the NFL right now. For his size, Wilfork is very sudden in his movements."
NEUHEISEL UPDATE: Ravens coach Brian Billick continued to be a strong advocate for offensive coordinator Rick Neuheisel’s candidacy for several college head coaching jobs, going so far as to e-mail an Atlanta newspaper to recommend the former University of Washington and University of Colorado head coach for the Georgia Tech vacancy.
"Evidently, they’re interested in him," Billick said of the Georgia Tech opening. "I think he’d make an outstanding head coach. I think that’s a circumstance in particular that would fit Rick very, very well. Hopefully, they’ll give him every consideration."
Meanwhile, Neuheisel has acknowledged being contacted indirectly for the SMU opening.
Neuheisel’s competition for several jobs is just down the road in Annapolis: Naval Academy coach Paul Johnson, who has been linked to many of the same openings in published reports.
"I can’t think of a job that’s Rick’s resume and enthusiasm wouldn’t be a good fit," Billick said.
Billick has made it clear that Neuheisel would be free to leave his Ravens’ post immediately to assume his new duties should he be hired.
INJURY UPDATE: Tight end Todd Heap (strained hamstring) and cornerback Chris McAlister (strained knee) are questionable for Monday night, and neither player practiced Friday after taking part on a limited basis the previous two days.
Both could wind up being game-time decisions or missing this game altogether.
Safety Gerome Sapp (hamstring, questionable) was downgraded to limited participation.
Offensive tackle Jared Gaither (illness) didn’t practice and wide receiver Derrick Mason was absent for undisclosed reasons.
Linebackers Jarret Johnson (thumb) and Gary Stills (knee), running back Willis McGahee (ankle) and tight end Daniel Wilcox (sprained toe) were upgraded to full participation in practice.
Meanwhile, wide receiver Demetrius Williams is uncertain if he’ll be able to return this season from a high-ankle sprain.
"It’s a time thing and time is kind of running out," Williams said. "I’m worried about that, of course. It’s just frustrating to sit here and be watching.
"Regardless of the season not going our way, nobody wants to be sitting in the training room and not be out there with your teammates. It’s been a rough year."
The Patriots only listed one player on their Friday injury report, quarterback Tom Brady, describing him as probable with a right shoulder injury.
BLACK UNIFORMS: The Ravens will don their all-black alternate uniforms Monday night. They have only lost once in the regular season in that garb, dropping the 2005 season opener to the Indianapolis Colts.
ARMY-NAVY: Billick weighed in on the significance of today’s Army-Navy clash at M&T Bank Stadium.
"That’s one of those things where even if you’re not a football fan, that’s one of the sporting events you need to see, like the Indy 500, like a Kentucky Derby, like a Super Bowl," said Billick, whose father, Don, was an Air Force pilot. "You need to go to an Army-Navy game. It’s an incredible atmosphere, and it ought to be a great game."
QUICK HITS: Center Mike Flynn was the victim of a prank with several players wearing long-sleeved black T-shirts emblazoned with the words, "The Mike Flynn Farewell Tour." The shirt lists every game and date for this season. The identity of who made the shirts has remained a secret. Flynn has said he knows who did it and is amused by the shirts. … Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan had a quick retort to team spokesman Kevin Byrne asking him whether he was limping. "No, I’m pimpin’," Ryan said, drawing laughs. … Billick is understandably reluctant to entertain playing rookie backup quarterback Troy Smith, the Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State who hasn’t played a single NFL snap in the regular season. "He’s continuing to learn," Billick said. "That’s exactly where he’s at and the responsibility that goes with that. Any rookie at this stage in the year that has not played, to go in would be an interesting challenge." … Ryan was complimentary of Patriots tight end Ben Watson, who’s underutilized due to Randy Moss and Co. "They’ve got another weapon there, don’t they?" Ryan said. "Yeah, but I think he only runs a 4.5, though. So, we’re not as worried about him as we are the other ones."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.