OWINGS MILLS — The timing of Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Jared Gaither returning to the starting lineup from a serious neck injury couldn’t be much better.
As the Ravens’ offensive line took the field Wednesday for blocking drills, Gaither lined up with the starters at his customary left tackle position.
The Ravens (3-3) will need Gaither to be at or near full strength Sunday against the undefeated Denver Broncos (6-0) at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Broncos feature NFL sacks leader Elvis Dumervil, a particularly dangerous, aggressive, undersized hybrid pass rusher in the mold of Pittsburgh Steelers star outside linebacker James Harrison.
"The Broncos are going to test everybody’s pass protection, for sure," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Our pass protection has been good, but it needs to get better. What makes them good is they beat blocks one-on-one.
“They do a nice job of bull-rushing, and they do a nice job of getting on edges. They’re relentless, they never stop and they’ve got some talented, fast guys."
After missing two games with a scary neck injury that caused him to be carted off the field Oct. 4 against the New England Patriots, Gaither is expected to start on the left side.
Stating that his neck is "pretty much 100 percent," Gaither added that he didn’t expect any position change after speculation arose that he might be shifted to right tackle.
"I expect to be back where I left off," Gaither said.
On Monday, Harbaugh declined to specify whether Gaither would play left or right tackle.
In Gaither’s absence, rookie first-round pick Michael Oher started at left tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals and the Minnesota Vikings.
Now, Oher is going back to his normal right tackle spot.
"Jared looks great," Oher said. "He’s been working hard to come back. He looks like the old Gaither to me."
When asked if he thought he would return to right tackle, Oher replied: "Of course. Why not?"
Against the Broncos, both Gaither and Oher figure to be tested by Dumervil.
The speedy outside linebacker leads the NFL with 10 sacks.
Dumervil is tied as the second-fastest player to reach 10 sacks since it became an official NFL statistic in 1982, matching former New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan’s total for six games in 2001.
"He’s an explosive player, a great player," Oher said. "He has a high motor."
The Broncos lead the NFL in scoring defense (11.0 points) and third-down percentage (26.9 percent).
Dumervil has registered seven sacks on third downs. And he had four sacks against the Cleveland Browns.
He’s on pace to match Strahan’s NFL record of 22 ½ sacks.
“I just try to be a guy who is relentless and is trying to play for four quarters,” Dumervil said in a conference call with Baltimore reporters. “I just go hard and play all out, just try to be disruptive.”
Mobile and elusive, Dumervil plays with a low center of gravity at 5-foot-11, 248 pounds.
With a stocky build, he appears even shorter than his listed height.
Because of how former Ravens’ defensive coordinator Mike Nolan moves Dumervil around the line of scrimmage in the Broncos’ aggressive 3-4 set, the Ravens may need to employ some chip-blocking assistance on the NFL Defensive Player of the Year contender.
“I played against Elvis Dumervil in college,” running back Ray Rice said. “He’s doing more now than he was doing in college. He was just a straight end in college. He’s a linebacker in their defense. You definitely have to be aware of that guy.”
One week after contending with the pass-rushing moves of Minnesota Vikings star defensive end Jared Allen and two weeks after Oher stonewalled Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Antwan Odom, here comes Dumervil.
“Their relentlessness is the same,” Harbaugh said in a reference to Allen and Dumervil. “These two guys are just fiercely relentless pass rushers, but the pass rush moves, tempo, the styles are completely different.
“I’d compare him more to Harrison probably in Pittsburgh. He’s the same kind of pass rusher. Jared Allen is kind of a big, long, rangy guy. Elvis is more of a power-paced kind of a guy, a little lower built to the ground, gains leverage, more of a spin guy sometimes.”
For the season, the Ravens have allowed a respectable 10 sacks.
That has allowed quarterback Joe Flacco to have sufficient time to complete 64.4 percent of his throws for 1,674 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions with a 93.8 quarterback rating.
“One of the main goals of a defense is to put pressure on the quarterback, you know, make him feel uncomfortable,” Flacco said. “It’s the job of a good quarterback to overcome that. It’s the job of a good offensive line to overcome that.
“And that’s what we’ll do as an offense. Our receivers will get open on the outside and give me a chance to get back there and get the ball out of my hands.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.