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WESTMINSTER, Md. — As he experiences the litmus test of his NFL debut, massive Baltimore Ravens rookie defensive tackle Haloti Ngata has more on his mind than strictly football. Of course, the first-round draft pick is intent on impressing the coaching staff by how he grapples with the Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive line Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium. His chief motivation lies, though, in honoring the memory of his parents, Solomone and Olga Ngata.
Solomone Ngata died three years ago in a trucking accident, and Ngata’s mother passed away earlier this year following a bout with kidney disease.
“My parents will be watching me,” Ngata said. “It will be an emotional, but an exciting time. It’s my first NFL game and it means a lot to me.”
While Ngata deals with his emotions, the Ravens will be scrutinizing how the 6-foot-4, 340-pounder fares against another heavyweight: Eagles Pro Bowl alternate offensive guard Shawn Andrews, a road-grading blocker with the same dimensions as Ngata.
“He’s going against the best guard in football, so if he does well against him that’s going to be a great sign of things to come,” defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. “Shawn Andrews is the closest thing to a young Larry Allen as there has been in this league for the last 20 years, so we’ll see how he does against him.”
Ngata suffered a Grade 1, medial collateral ligament knee sprain in a scrimmage against the Washington Redskins. He said he won’t require a knee brace and expects to have the majority of his usual mobility and strength. The operating plan for the big rookie, according to defensive line coach Clarence Brooks, is for Ngata to play roughly a quarter while the starters play the entire first half.
“He’s progressing pretty well and has been practicing hard even when he was a little sore,” Brooks said. “He’s here to give us a size-and-strength presence in the middle and that’s what we’re counting on him to do. He knows what we’re expecting out of him.”
Although Ngata was hazed a little bit by the veterans as training camp concluded Wednesday by being taped up and doused with water, they didn’t attempt to hoist him to the goalpost.
“Haloti is a pretty good rookie, more of a mellow guy, humble and not outspoken,” linebacker Adalius Thomas said. “He took his punishment. He didn’t get taped to the goalpost because nobody could pick him up.”
With Ngata’s return along with former All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who was held out last week against the New York Giants as a precautionary measure, and cornerback Samari Rolle, who was out with a heel injury, this marks the first time the entire Ravens’ starting defensive 11 has competed against another football team.
The Ravens’ first-string bottled up the Giants’ offense last week, allowing only two first downs during the opening quarter, 15 net rushing yards in the first half as New York converted only 20 percent of its third downs in the first and second quarter. Now, the Ravens will test themselves against quarterback Donovan McNabb and the Eagles’ West Coast offense.
“We’ll go against an excellent Philadelphia team with an outstanding offensive line,” Ryan said. “I expect we’ll play well.”
Meanwhile, the Ravens’ offense is looking to build on the momentum and timing generated last week by an impressive 82-yard opening drive that spanned 7 minutes and 22 seconds and was capped by quarterback Steve McNair’s touchdown scramble. McNair completed all but one of his passes, and running backs Jamal Lewis and Musa Smith combined for 95 rushing yards on 10 carries.
“Now, we’ve got to go back, regroup and make adjustments and see if we can have back-to-back series that we have continuity and success with,” offensive coordinator Jim Fassel said.
Since McNair’s textbook opening act last week, the Ravens have been wondering what he’ll do for an encore. Even though it’s only a preseason game, the Ravens aren’t accustomed to sporting a veteran quarterback that demonstrates poise and crisp execution.
“We’re still trying to get that rhythm, that flow going with our offense,” tight end Todd Heap said. “There are a lot of things we can improve on. We can clean a few things up and get some improvement in our blocking schemes and protections.”
The Ravens don’t sound like they’re resting on their laurels as they prepare for an aggressive defensive scheme headlined by defensive coordinator Jim Johnson’s multi-faceted blitz packages. Keep in mind that the Eagles are entering their third preseason game and are expected to play their starters for a long time in order to hone their games for the regular season.
“We’re playing a very good defense,” wide receiver Derrick Mason said. “I know coach Johnson is going to bring a lot of blitzes. It’s going to be a good test for us, seeing blitzes like that so early in the season.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times.