The Baltimore Ravens didn't win the AFC North last season. Cincinnati did, and the Bengals got there by running over opponents, beating them with a rushing attack that catapulted from 29th in 2008 to ninth a year later.
Nowhere did those numbers resonate more than in Baltimore, where the Ravens once had an NFL-best streak of 39 games without allowing an opposing back to rush for 100 yards. That string was broken last year by Cincinnati's Cedric Benson.
Benson didn't just shred them once; he did it twice, with Cincinnati winning both times. That sent a message to Baltimore, where the Ravens figured that if they're going to catch Cincinnati they better figure out how to stop Benson.
|Terrence Cody has lost 23 pounds from the 370 he carried at the Senior Bowl. (US Presswire)|
I'm talking about the addition of defensive tackle Terrence Cody, a second-round pick who is so big and strong that he's known as "Mount" Cody. But it's not Cody's size or strength that has coaches talking at this spring's OTAs. It's his quickness, with one insider comparing it to that of former Ravens star Sam Adams, who helped plug the middle so effectively when the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV.
"We are really, really pleased with the player we see," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "All the things we hoped, all the things we thought we saw either on film or at our workout or heard by word of mouth from coaches we respect ... all those things up to this point have been coming through."
That's not good for anyone thinking about running at these guys. First in line is Cincinnati, which beat Baltimore twice and lapped the AFC North behind Benson's' career-best 1,251 yards. Then there's Pittsburgh, the division champion the previous two years. The Steelers want to run more effectively than they have in the past, relying more on their offensive line than Ben Roethlisberger's right arm, and the idea is a good one ... except against Baltimore.
Yes, Cody is a rookie and it's early June, but the signs are promising. The Ravens added more than just another wide body to the middle of the field. They plugged in a critical element to a University of Alabama program that didn't allow a 100-yard rusher in Cody's 26 starts there and someone who was so effective against the run that opponents considered him immovable.
Baltimore coaches talk about how quickly he's picking up the Ravens' defense and how perfectly he fits in, and that tells me the Ravens are loaded at a position that already includes standouts Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg. It also tells me that opponents might want to reconsider plans to attack the middle of Baltimore's defensive line.
"We have a real good front seven," said Cody. "Even the backups. With me being a backup, we're very deep and very good up front. We have a bunch of players who refuse to give up yards and refuse to give up the field."
But Baltimore had those players. Now they have more of them. Cody was one of the premier run stuffers in the draft, with the knock that he couldn't rush the passer and might not be able to control a weight that once ballooned as high as 400 pounds. He's 347 now -- down 23 pounds from his weight at the Senior Bowl -- and adapting to the pro game so quickly the Ravens are talking about using him on every down.
"He has tremendous in-line quickness," said Mattison. "He's really, really an explosive man. Couple that with his strength and his size [and] he's really exciting."
The Ravens caught a glimpse of that explosion at a recent workout when, following a week off because of hip soreness, the rookie stepped in and produced back-to-back hits of backup quarterback Troy Smith, once forcing a fumble. Cody always had a quick first step, but now that he's nearly 15 pounds under the 360 he carried last season he said he feels faster and more agile, and the evidence was there in practice.
"I have something to prove," he said, "so I lost the weight. I went in the second round, and it was my fault. So I have something to prove that I was worth going in the first.
"This is my job and my life, so now [the weight loss] is real big for me. It's going to help me stay in the league if I can just keep it down and keep it in control, which I'm doing very well right now. [The Ravens] have a nutrition program, but I've been doing real well on my own. They're good with how I'm dealing with it."
Opponents might not be. They passed on Cody because he was supposed to be a weight problem waiting to happen ... only he isn't. Not yet. They passed on Cody because he was supposed to be a liability against the pass ... only he isn't. Not yet. They passed on Cody because ... well, because he was supposed to be a risk not worth assuming with a high draft choice. So he fell to the Ravens late in the second round, and the rich might just have gotten richer.
"[On third downs] we will always have our best players on the field in pass-rush situations," said Mattison, "but this isn't going to be one of those deals where you look out there and say, 'Oh, no, Terrence Cody is out there; we can't do this.' We don't feel that way at all.
"I know a knock on him was that he's a first- and second-down player, but we don't buy that at all. Clarence Brooks, our defensive line coach, worked very hard with him on his pass rush and even said to him one day, 'If you think you're coming off the field because of a pass-rushing situation you're wrong.' And he takes great pride in that. He believes he can be a pass rusher."
The Ravens believe he can be an impact player. If they're right, Cincinnati's run to the top of the AFC North -- yes, I mean that literally -- might be over.
"I would think Ray Lewis should be smiling from ear to ear," said Mattison. "When you put a guy like this in front of him it's going to allow him to keep doing what he's doing."