McClatchy News Services
POSTED: 11:00 a.m. HST, Oct 6, 2012
BALTIMORE » Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata had mapped out an ambitious plan, albeit one not readily apparent when he lumbered onto the practice field for a June minicamp.
Considerably heftier than usual after spending the offseason bulking up, Ngata didn’t display his trademark explosiveness.
The extra bulk around Ngata’s midsection and torso raised eyebrows about whether the three-time Pro Bowl selection had gone too far in his quest to become stronger and more durable and maintain his speed after wearing down toward the end of last season because of a deep thigh bruise.
“Armor of fat?” Ngata said with a laugh. “Yeah, people were definitely surprised at how big I looked. It’s a totally different workout that I did. I definitely felt good last year, but I think I wasn’t that strong because I didn’t have as much weight.
“So, I decided to put the weight back on and I feel much better. They can say whatever they want. When the time comes, the film talks the loudest.”
Four months later, the 6-foot-4, 350-pound player has delivered a powerful rebuttal to those wondering how his game would be affected by gaining roughly 20 pounds since last season.
Anchoring a defense bereft of injured NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs, Ngata has terrorized offensive linemen with his rare blend of girth and mobility.
“Haloti is a dominant force in this game,” linebacker Jameel McClain said. “One person blocking him is a mismatch. He’s so freakishly strong and athletic. How do you account for it? I see an even more dominant player than last year and the year before.”
Ngata has been unblockable at times, manhandling accomplished linemen such as Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack.
During a victory over the Browns last week, Ngata grabbed the back of Mack’s shoulder pads and pulled him forward with such a crisp swim move that the Pro Bowl lineman barely grazed him.
Overpowering Mack, Ngata penetrated the backfield so quickly that it allowed outside linebacker Paul Kruger to sack rookie Brandon Weeden.
Ngata dished out similarly rough treatment to Cincinnati Bengals center Jeff Faine, beating him for a couple of sacks in the season opener.
“Haloti is the best defensive tackle in the game,” Kruger said. “He’s an incredible athlete. To be that fast at his size, there aren’t that many people like that in the world. I know he looks big, but he looks just as fast to me on the tape. He knew what he was doing by getting bigger.”
Although the bull rush, a straightforward charge in which he pushes linemen backward as if they’re on roller skates, is one of his primary moves, Ngata also uses finesse and nimble feet to get the job done.
When Ngata notices offensive linemen have their weight down on their hand in their stance, he’ll use a swim move or jab step to run past them rather than exercise brute force.
“I’m trying to get guys off balance,” Ngata said. “I actually think Mack is the best center in our division. He’s usually a balanced guy, so getting him off balance and making a play means something.”
Heading into Sunday’s Week 5 game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Ngata has 20 tackles and two sacks with one pass deflection.
In a 31-30 win Sept. 23 over the New England Patriots, Ngata had a season-high nine tackles and a half-sack.
“Every game, Haloti makes plays that make you say, ‘Wow, this guy will go down as one of the greats,’” defensive end Pernell McPhee said. “In my opinion, he’s the most dominant defensive player in the NFL.”
It’s unlikely that the Chiefs, who are breaking in a new center in converted guard Ryan Lilja with Rodney Hudson out for the season with a broken leg, will assign just one blocker to try to occupy Ngata.
“He has tremendous strength, size and mobility for a man his size,” Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said. “You might have to put two on him. Some people will try putting three on him. He has movement skills for a big man. I think he has determination.”
That attribute is evident in Ngata’s effort to make tackles several yards from the line of scrimmage. Lazy isn’t in his vocabulary.
“That’s huge because they don’t expect big guys to run down a guy,” Ngata said. “Hopefully, I can still do a little more, contribute and keep on improving and making more plays.”
One of Ngata’s most noteworthy plays this season was chasing down Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker downfield to get a piece of a tackle.
“He is amazing that way,” Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “I saw him run down some people or see a screen, and he is out there hitting the guy and landing on him. I’m going, ‘Man, there is no way I’d come back inside on that guy. Just stay outside.’ A lot of that is not only physical talent, that’s ‘want to.’ That’s an attitude.”
Pees regards this season as the best he’s seen him play after Ngata totaled 130 tackles and 10.5 sacks during the previous two.
With Suggs on the physically-unable-to-perform list, Ngata hardly ever leaves the field because the defense needs his pass-rushing skills.
“We keep him out there even on third down, which wasn’t always the case before, because he has such a presence in the inside,” Pees said. “He usually creates a situation where you’re going to take two (players) to block him. He’s been great this year.”
Ngata honed his athleticism while growing up in Utah as an oversize rugby player. He would fake out much smaller players or carry them on his back when they attempted to tackle him.
“Rugby was huge for me with my open-field tackling and conditioning,” Ngata said. “It helped my peripheral vision, seeing the whole field. It teaches you so many things.”
Though he’s quiet in the locker room and not a trash talker on the field, Ngata’s approach toward the game is built on aggression.
“I want to dominate, overcome and conquer,” Ngata said. “I want to impose my will on offensive linemen and do whatever I want to.”