OWINGS MILLS — Jared Gaither was given a rude initiation into the Baltimore Ravens’ blood rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers when he was first tasked with blocking intimidating outside linebacker James Harrison.
Harrison gained momentum toward eventually claiming NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors last season at the expense of Gaither, the Ravens’ massive left offensive tackle.
During the 6-foot-9, 340-pounder’s initial encounter with Harrison, the All-Pro pass rusher recorded 2 1/2 sacks, a forced fumble and eight tackles in the Steelers’ 23-20 overtime triumph at Heinz Field.
Harrison’s unique combination of speed, power and aggressiveness was simply too much for Gaither to handle.
Over the subsequent two meetings last season, both won by the Steelers, Gaither managed to hold Harrison to no sacks each time with a total of 11 tackles.
“Watching his game, studying film, helped me realize what he does,” Gaither said as he prepares for his fourth game against Harrison. “He has a lot of power. He’s real deceptive with his moves. He can get around the corner real well.
“He’s quicker than he is fast, but he can run. He plays low to the ground and he has a great motor. He never stops coming.”
Harrison is generously listed at 6-foot, but appears larger than 242 pounds because of his stocky, sculpted frame.
“Harrison does a great job of doing everything,” rookie offensive tackle Michael Oher said. “He’s a great player. He’s a shorter guy with a lot of power in his lower body. We have to get after him.”
Harrison ranks third in the NFL with 10 sacks and has already forced four fumbles. For his career, he has 38 ½ sacks and 18 forced fumbles.
And Harrison has a pronounced nasty streak, still playing with the chip on his shoulder of a former undrafted free agent who was once discarded by the Ravens so they could sign tight end Daniel Wilcox.
“He looks like a fullback,” Gaither said. “It’s like blocking Le’Ron McClain out there. He doesn’t talk trash really at all. There’s a lot of respect between us.”
The Ravens’ offensive line provided outstanding pass protection against Indianapolis Colts pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, stonewalling them with no sacks allowed.
Gaither and Oher were largely responsible for the shutdown.
“Those guys have done a nice job protecting their quarterback,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. “They’re two talented, young tackles and it’s going to be an exciting matchup.
“It’s going to be one of the central matchups, I think, in the football game. Our edge men versus their pass protectors, we’ll see how it turns out.”
Following the Ravens’ 17-15 loss last Sunday, Freeney griped to Indianapolis reporters that Gaither and Oher had lots of assistance from chip-blocking even though it appeared to be single-blocking assignments for the majority of the game.
“I can’t remember a lot of times where we had help,” Gaither said. “I don’t really have anything else to say about that. That’s his opinion.”
Of course, Harrison isn’t the Steelers’ lone pass-rushing threat.
LaMarr Woodley has contributed five sacks, and fellow linebacker Lawrence Timmons has four sacks.
Under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s complicated zone-blitz schemes, the pass rush can come from anywhere at any time.
“That’s tough to stop because they have a lot of linebackers who can blitz,” Gaither said. “We work hard on our pass blocking, so we’re more than capable of competing with them. We know we can block. We’ll play against the best pass rushers.”