Inside the Ravens with Aaron Wilson

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Hot competition brewing between young Ravens LB's

OWINGS MILLS -- Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Jameel McClain was trailing the play Monday night, and he was clearly caught off guard as the spiral from Mark Sanchez sailed over his helmet into the hands of speedy New York Jets running back Leon Washington.

Disgusted with himself after allowing the 19-yard touchdown pass, McClain was counseled by All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis to keep his head in the game.

Minutes after surrendering the touchdown, McClain redeemed himself by jumping in front of wide receiver Brad Smith to intercept a Kellen Clemens pass and scoot 16 yards into the end zone for a touchdown.

Just like Tavares Gooden, who's slated to replace Bart Scott as the inside linebacker next to Lewis, McClain atones quickly for any mistakes of youthful inexperience.

Any reactions on the field from the second-year linebackers, good or bad, tend to be aggressive and fast.

"They're both pretty good," veteran defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "They're good young players, fast and strong. They're Ravens’ linebackers."

Although there appeared to be significant confusion on the coverage as there was a lot of pointing fingers prior to the snap about where to line up, McClain refused to make excuses about giving up the score.

"It was definitely something going on, but, at the end of the day, it's my fault," McClain said. "I've got to be a leader and get everything done. It doesn't matter who's at fault. It's my job to stay on it. It doesn't matter what happened communication-wise.

"My mindset is, he scored. I'm like, 'Dang, you don't want no one to score on the Ravens.’ I don't want to be a weak link, so that went out of my head. Definitely, some good things jumped out on film. Obviously, there's that one play. Other than that, I liked what I saw."

A short memory is an admirable trait that should serve McClain well as he makes his bid to push Gooden for playing time on the first-string defense one year after making the team as an undrafted free agent and recording a franchise-record two safeties.

McClain didn't dwell on the miscue or hang his head on the sidelines. Instead, he was intent on exacting some revenge on the Jets' offense.

"It was good to put the six points back on the board," McClain said. "I got a chance to redeem myself. It's not often that you get that opportunity."

McClain wound up finishing with a game-high eight tackles, including six solo stops. He also led the team with two special-teams tackles.

Meanwhile, Gooden was equally impressive.

Gooden dashed into the backfield untouched to corral Sanchez for his first NFL sack in the second quarter, wrapping him up as whistles blew for a six-yard loss.

The former third-round draft pick from the University of Miami also recorded five tackles.

Gooden flashed his 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash on the sack, rapidly gaining ground to overtake Sanchez before he could get the football out of his hands.

"I wanted to get a big hit on him, but he was running backwards," Gooden said. "I had to grab onto him. It felt great to make plays. It felt like college again. It's all timing.

"Without the defensive line, the sack wouldn't be possible Those guys do a great job of opening up space for fast guys to penetrate. It felt good to make a big play out here and do it on Monday night and get my first NFL sack."

Between Gooden and McClain, the Ravens seem to be fortified inside in the wake of Bart Scott signing a $48 million contract this offseason with the Jets after spending seven seasons in Baltimore.

"I think what we’re finding out is we have a good, young linebacking group, no doubt about it," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said when asked about Gooden and McClain. "The guys you mentioned are both quality players, and there are some other guys that are playing well, too.

"You can go right down the line in our linebacking group and look at, I don’t know what the number is, 10 guys that could make our team, that could make anybody’s team. So, that’s a deep group.”

The Ravens haven't officially declared that Gooden has won the job, but he has started both preseason games.

McClain is expected to get playing time behind Gooden, but it appears that Gooden will enter the season as the starter.

“It’s just two guys practicing hard and trying to make a contribution to this team," McClain said. “I don’t look at it as a battle or a competition. We're just out there having fun. We let other people worry about that stuff."

Gooden is an athletic former Florida state prep champion in the discus who also excelled in the long jump and high jump growing up in Fort Lauderdale.

Lean and muscular, Gooden spent the majority of last season on injured reserve after undergoing hip flexor and sports hernia surgeries.

Healthy again and down to 238 pounds at the coaches' request after bulking up to 247 pounds by May minicamps, Gooden is eager to prove himself.

Remaining injury-free is a paramount concern for Gooden.

"For me, it's all about durability," Gooden said. "They want to see me play and finish out this preseason strong."

Scott was an ultra-productive linebacker for the Ravens who was selected to one Pro Bowl after entering the league as an unheralded free agent from Southern Illinois.

There are extremely high expectations for Gooden to uphold the Ravens' rich linebacker tradition.

"I've never competed against Bart Scott," Gooden said. "He's Bart Scott. I'm Tavares Gooden. We're two different linebackers, two different players. I was never contesting or trying to be better than him.

"If people say I'm better than him, then that's up to them. Bart is a good friend of mine. I would never say I'm better than anybody else. All I want to do is live up to my potential and be the best I can be. If I can do that, then I'll be happy."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

Photo by Sabina Moran.

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