Six years ago, the Oregon Ducks defense practiced like most other college teams, with one exception: Their stud defensive lineman sat out, doing drills on the side by himself.
Haloti Ngata was too good to practice with the rest of the team. He hampered the offense's development.
"We couldn't get plays off," said Steelers backup quarterback Dennis Dixon, who played for the Ducks, including one season with Ngata. "Seriously. He was that big, he was that effective. He didn't practice with us at all."
Ngata, now a Baltimore Ravens defensive lineman, is bigger now, listed at 6-foot-4 and 350 pounds. "He might be more than 350," Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said. "He hits like he's 500."
Ngata, along with nose tackle Kelly Gregg and defensive end Cory Redding, will bring a combined 968 pounds of athleticism to Heinz Field Saturday when the Ravens face the Steelers in a divisional playoff game. These three are the linemen in the Ravens' base defense; other linemen/linebackers -- such as Terrell Suggs -- sometimes play on the line of scrimmage.
The combined weight of Ngata, Gregg and Redding might actually reach the quadruple digits. The Steelers' offensive linemen are not convinced Ngata weighs "only" 350. Either way, they will have to block the equivalent of a baby killer whale, if the baby killer whale had quick feet and five years of experience facing the Steelers.
Ngata, a Pro Bowl starter, has 63 tackles and 5.5 sacks this season, but his impact does not reveal itself in individual statistics. Since he joined the Ravens in 2006, when they drafted him with the 12th overall pick, Baltimore has allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns (31) in the NFL. The Indianapolis Colts' four-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday once said Ngata has the athletic ability to play free safety if he wanted to. In two games against the Steelers this season, Ngata had 15 tackles and a half sack. He also broke quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's nose with an inadvertent swipe of the hand.
"He's the best, man," Pouncey said. "Going against him, you know it. He's the best defensive lineman in the league, and it shows."
The Ravens play Ngata at three line positions in their 3-4 defense. His quick feet, along with his ability to attack from anywhere within the formation, add to the danger he poses. His knowledge of the Steelers' offense after five years of division play allows him to apply his physical skill effectively.
"Outside of athletically, he actually has an understanding of the offenses and how to disrupt them," running back Rashard Mendenhall said. "He's a hustle guy, he's always around the ball."
Ngata complements Gregg, a 34-year-old veteran who has played for the Ravens since 2001. He is listed at 320 pounds and what Steelers players call a very questionable six feet, meaning his 320 pounds are contained in a low, compact package.
"It's hard to get under him to move him off the line," guard Chris Kemoeatu said. "He gets so low and he's so strong."
Ngata and Gregg attract double-teams and give Ravens linebackers Suggs and Ray Lewis the chance to make tackles. But they do more than that.
"Sometimes guys are just space-eaters. Their guys aren't space-eaters," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "They're stout and also big-play capable. They come off of blocks and they make tackles."
The Steelers won't change much to offset Ngata and Gregg, along with Redding. Kemoeatu said the lineman will get low and drive them off the ball, and Mendenhall and tight end Heath Miller said they will help out when the scheme dictates.
"If we get them in a good down-and-distance situation, like second and 5 or less, that helps us out a whole lot more and that means we're running the ball efficiently also," guard Ramon Foster said. "Just staying ahead of the chains and making sure that we don't let them do all the athletic moves."
That will be tough against Ngata, who in college tied the football team's record with a 505-pound bench press.
"He's at the prime of his life right now," Dixon said. "It's freaky."
Not to mention the fact that all reports indicate he actually practiced with his team this week.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1158.