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Mark Gaughan's X's and O's: Ravens know who's got the beef

Bills rookie quarterback Josh Allen was in diapers the last time the Baltimore Ravens didn’t have a good run defense.

Baltimore has ranked in the top half of the NFL in yards per rush allowed 21 years in a row, and they’ve been in the top 10 in 20 of those 21 seasons.

The Ravens’ two-decade string of beefy run stuffers has included Tony Siragusa, Sam Adams, Kelly Gragg and Haloti Ngata. And the current dynamic duo in the middle is 336-pound Brandon Williams and 340-pound Michael Pierce.

LeSean McCoy: Meet the Ravens’ brick wall.

“We’ve really got a workload waiting for us on Sunday,” said Bills guard Vlad Ducasse. “They’re really good big guys, strong with quickness.”

Remember the season opener in Baltimore two years ago. The Bills lost, 13-7, and were held to 11 first downs. McCoy managed 2.7 yards a carry.

Williams was dominant that day and has been a cornerstone of the Ravens’ defense since entering the NFL as a third-round pick in 2013. The Ravens made him the 10th-highest paid defensive tackle in the NFL last year, at $10.5 million a year.

Pierce has been a revelation since joining the Ravens as an undrafted rookie out of Samford two years ago. ProFootballFocus rated him the 10th most effective interior defensive lineman in the league last year.

That’s no surprise to Ducasse, who spent the 2016 season with Baltimore.

“I remember when I first got there in OTAs, and I went against him,” Ducasse said. “I’m thinking this guy’s good. The better he did, the more reps they gave him. He’s the real deal.”

“We saw a video of him in college before the draft squatting 725 pounds,” Ducasse said. “He made it look easy.”

Ducasse expects to learn plenty with Bills

The 330-pound Ducasse says he has squatted 600 pounds. How about a normal-sized player? Safety Micah Hyde, at 197, says he has done 405.

“He’s a very explosive young man,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh of Pierce. “He’s powerful. He’s twitchy, and he’s hard to block.”

Pierce’s emergence allowed the Ravens to trade former second-round pick Timmy Jernigan to the Eagles before last season.

Bills center Ryan Groy won the starting job over Russell Bodine in part because he’s stouter. He will need all of his girth Sunday.

“Great player,” Groy said of Pierce. “A lot of burst, a lot of explosiveness. Stout in the run. A great challenge.”

The big uglies keep blockers off Ravens middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, a former first-round pick who has made three Pro Bowls in four seasons.

The 30,000-foot view: The Bills widely were viewed as a “weak” wild-card qualifier at 9-7 last season. But what if the Ravens had held on to beat Cincinnati in Week 17 and earned the last wild-card spot? The Ravens’ 9-7 record was built on wins over Cleveland twice, Houston (with Tom Savage, not DeShaun Watson), Green Bay (with Brett Hundley, not Aaron Rodgers), Oakland (with EJ Manuel, not Derek Carr) and Miami (with Matt Moore). The only QBs of note the Ravens played last year were Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Andy Dalton (twice) and Matt Stafford.

This is the last year of Ozzie Newsome’s 23-year run as personnel chief with the Ravens. He’s stepping down as general manager and will be replaced by Eric DeCosta, assistant GM the past six drafts. Newsome has stocked up on defense, picking 10 front-seven players in the top three rounds from 2014 to 2017. This year, the Ravens went offense with their first four picks. The 25th overall pick, tight end Hayden Hurst, is out this week. The 32nd overall pick, quarterback Lamar Jackson, just might set up DeCosta for a successful run.

Special teams: Harbaugh is the only NFL head coach who made the jump from special-teams coordinator. Not surprisingly, his teams have dominated in the kicking game. The Ravens have ranked among the top five in special teams six straight seasons and finished No. 1 in 2015, according to the Dallas Morning News. Football Outsiders ranked the Ravens No. 1 two of the last three years. Place-kicker Justin Tucker is the most accurate in NFL history and a two-time Pro Bowler. Punter Sam Koch led the NFL in punts downed inside the 20 last year. The Ravens were No. 1 in kickoff return average and No. 1 in kickoff coverage last year. Coordinator Jerry Rosburg has been Harbaugh’s special teams coordinator since 2008.

“I think he’s the best in the business, without question,” Harbaugh said.

There’s a presumption that teams with 3-4 defenses have a special teams edge because there are more linebackers (coverage men) on the roster. Harbaugh disagrees.

“I think the 4-3 is actually a better set-up for special teams because the 3-4 sets up with two outside backers and two inside backers,” Harbaugh said. “Those outside backers are usually not always great special teams players because they’re bigger guys. The 4-3 gives you three runners at linebacker. That’s something we’ve had to battle and overcome over the years.”

Matchup Watch

Brian Daboll vs. Don “Wink” Martindale. It’s a meeting of two new coordinators but it’s a bigger change for the Bills. Martindale is in his seventh year with the Ravens and was promoted from linebackers coach. He’s running the same scheme but has hinted at showing opponents more varying fronts than in the past. Look for Martindale to try to confuse Nathan Peterman into turnovers. The Ravens had a league-high 34 takeaways last year. How many new wrinkles can Daboll use to fool the Ravens?

“The first thing an offensive line has to do is come up and determine whether they’re going to treat the front as an even front or an odd front,” coach John Harbaugh said. “So, if we can make that a little tougher for them to do, or at least force them to take that step, that should help us."

Bills OC Brian Daboll follows long, difficult path back home

Bills safeties vs. Ravens safeties. Some Ravens fans think their team has the best safety tandem in the AFC in Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson. Bills fans view Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer as one of the best. Weddle is a five-time Pro Bowler. Jefferson, a free-agent signing from Arizona last year, has an NFL-best 24 tackles for loss the past three seasons. They combined for 8 INTs and 10 passes defensed last year. Hyde and Poyer combined for 10 INTs and 26 passes defensed.

Terrell Suggs vs. Dion Dawkins. Suggs is going strong at age 35, and he’s the only player left in the NFL from the 2003 draft class. He had 11 sacks last year, bringing his career total to 125.5. Is “Sizzle” a Hall of Famer? Maybe. He was defensive player of the year in 2011 and he is a seven-time Pro Bowler. Only one player with more sacks (Leslie O’Neal) isn’t in the Hall. Suggs will move around in the Ravens’ defense. He played two-thirds on the right side (opposite the left tackle) and one third on the left last year. So Jordan Mills will see him, too.

Weak link: Center Matt Skura. The knock on Skura, an undrafted third-year man from Duke, is he’s not very athletic. He’s the Ravens’ new center, taking over for Ryan Jensen, who signed a rich deal with Tampa Bay. The Ravens’ offense needs the run game to work to get the play-action pass game going. Helping out Skura is one of the top right guards in the NFL, Marshall Yanda, who missed all last season with an ankle injury. But the left guard, Alex Lewis, is inexperienced too, and sat out all 2017 with a shoulder injury. The Bills need to win the middle of the trench.

Stat for the road: The Ravens used two tight ends or six offensive linemen 55 percent of the snaps last year, tops in the NFL. The tight ends are good blockers who will test the Bills’ edges.

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