-- Just looking at Maake Kemoeatu, the 6-foot-5, 350-pound nose tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, it's hard to believe there was a time when his size was a disadvantage as a football player.
His size didn't help him when he wanted to play youth football while growing up in Hawaii; he was too big for the league, which had a maximum weight limit. It didn't help him when he first got to the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2002, and he had to figure out how to play against smaller, quicker players who could use his height against him.
But now, Kemoeatu is thriving in his first year as a full-time starter. His presence in the middle of the Ravens' defensive line has gone a long way toward lifting Baltimore's rush defense to second in the NFL, giving up an average of 70.3 yards per game.
"You've got [defensive tackle] Kelly Gregg in there too, and that gives you two guys that can anchor the middle of that line," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "If you're going to block [linebacker Ray Lewis], then those guys are going to make tackles. If you block those two, then you're not going to block Ray. You've got to pick your poison."
The Ravens (1-2), who are at the Lions on Sunday, traditionally have been tough against the run in Brian Billick's tenure as head coach; they've ranked among the top three in rushing average per carry every season since 1999.
The 2000 team, which won Super Bowl XXXV and featured a big, physical defensive line, gave up 60.6 rushing yards per game, an NFL record for a 16-game season. But in February 2002, three of those big linemen -- end Rob Burnett and tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams -- were released as part of a salary cap purge. All of a sudden, the Ravens were looking for some size. That led them to Kemoeatu, who had a solid four-year career at the University of Utah.
"We said, 'Who's the biggest rascal out there?' " said Ryan, who was the defensive line coach when Kemoeatu was a rookie. "We saw Kemo and took him. That's basically what it came down to."
Kemoeatu, who was born in Tonga and moved to Hawaii when he was 6, comes from a big family. He said he has a grandfather who's 6-8 and a grandmother who's 6-4 and "still strong." He has three younger brothers who can't be called little: Chris (6-3, 344 pounds) is a rookie offensive lineman with the Pittsburgh Steelers; Tevita (6-2, 300) played defensive line at Utah and is now working toward a master's degree in architecture; and Benjamin (6-2, 290) is a sophomore in high school. (He also has three sisters.)
"I'm 6-5, but I try to play at a height of 6-foot, staying low, and I take advantage of my strength, the length of my arms," said Kemoeatu, whose name is pronounced ma-AH-kay key-moy-AH-too. "One of the disadvantages for big players like me is getting too high. The more I stay low, the chances are I can't be beat. If I stay high, the chances of me getting beat is much higher."
When he came to Baltimore, Kemoeatu was 310 pounds and didn't know a thing about using leverage. But he worked hard in the weight room and in two years increased his bench press by 90 pounds (he now benches 400 pounds). He worked hard on his footwork and conditioning, and he picked up every tip he could from Ryan and fellow linemen Gregg and Anthony Weaver. Every week, he tries to focus on one area that will help him get better or prepare for a particular opponent.
"Last week, I played a center [Kevin Mawae] that was quick, so I had to get my footwork faster and my hands faster," Kemoeatu said. "This week, the center we're playing against [Dominic Raiola] is more of a power guy, so I have to get heavier lifting in, and my stance is more of a power stance. Every week I find something to do to make myself better, and that's what kept me going the last four years."
Billick appointed Kemoeatu as the defensive team captain last week against the New York Jets, a gesture designed to show Kemoeatu just how important his presence would be in controlling the run. Running back Curtis Martin, last year's leading rusher, was held to 30 yards on 13 carries, and the Jets as a team were limited to 28 rushing yards. Billick and Ryan pointed to Kemoeatu's performance against Mawae, a six-time Pro Bowl pick, as one of the main reasons why.
"His game is strength; it is control," defensive line coach Clarence Brooks said. "He's got to give us presence on the inside, and that's what he does. He understands that he's got to keep everything clean in the middle. How he does it, it doesn't really matter. As long as he has a presence in the middle and plays with strength, we can survive."
Ravens Notes: Defensive lineman Dwan Edwards, a second-round pick in 2004, is expected to get his first extended playing time of his career, as Weaver is sidelined with a dislocated toe. Edwards was the Ravens' top draft pick last season, but he has been deactivated for 15 of his first 19 games as a Raven.
"He has to come in and fill some big shoes," linebacker Ray Lewis said of Edwards. "Anthony Weaver is a big hit for us, so he has to come in and do some big things for us." . . .
Tight end Todd Heap was sent home early on Wednesday because of illness, but he is expected to play on Sunday. Quarterback Kyle Boller (hyper-extended toe) and Weaver are the only players listed as out.