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STRAIGHT UP THE GUT: Saints Center Max Unger Might Have His Hands Full (Literally) vs. Ravens

Standing 6-foot-3 and weighing in at 311 pounds, 3rd year veteran Ravens defensive tackle Wille Henry has quickly become one of the emerging young stars for Baltimore's #1 ranked defensive pass rush (26 sacks overall in 6 games) this season.

And this coming Sunday, the former University of Michigan star will be looking to continue his prowess "straight up the gut" against Saints 10th year veteran center Max Unger — who at times this season has struggled a bit while providing interior pass protection for Drew Brees in recent weeks.

While the (4-1) Saints O-Line as a whole has done a phenomenal job overall at protecting Brees this season (he's been sacked on less than 5-percent of his drop backs), the 32-year old Unger has shown some signs of a possible decline while going up against a few of the League's much younger and quicker DT's in the first 5 games.

Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

At Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium this Sunday evening, Unger will be challenged yet again; when he will be matched up one-on-one with Henry; whom the Ravens chose with the 132nd overall pick in the 4th Round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

As a senior for the Wolverines, Henry finished his Michigan career with a solid 2015 season in which he finished 2nd on the team with 10 TFL (tackles for loss), tied for 1st in sacks (6.5) and 3rd in total QB pressures (25).

Henry does much of the heavy lifting 'down in the trenches' so to speak, for Baltimore's interior pass rush on the inside. And after returning 2 weeks ago from a surgical procedure for an umbilical hernia in late August that caused him to miss their first 4 games of the season, Henry has been one of the main catalysts for the (4-2) Ravens' rapid rise to the top of the League's defensive rankings in recent weeks.

For the Ravens and defensive coordinator Don Martindale, they already are more than well aware that winning the battle on the interior of the line of scrimmage in this particular contest, will be the biggest factor in attempting to  disrupt the timing and rhythm of Brees and the Saints' 3rd ranked passing offense.

And with the Ravens having gone on a complete tear with chasing and terrorizing opposing QB's (most notably Tennessee Titans QB Marcus Mariota; who they sacked 10 times out of their 11 total sacks last Sunday), you had best believe that they'll have Brees lined up squarely in their sight in this vitally important interconference match-up for New Orleans.

Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Given the fact that Baltimore has recorded 16 sacks, more than 60-percent of their League-leading total of (26) through the League's first 6 regular season games, since Henry returned to Ravens D-Line rotation in Week #5 during their home game against Cleveland; it's probably safe to say that Unger just might have his hands full (literally) with the younger and quicker 24-year old.

After the team originally drafted him as a rookie, Henry ended up missing his very first NFL season when he was placed on injured reserve on November 15, 2016; which ended his initial year in the League without playing a single snap through nine games and forced Ravens head coach John Harbaugh to declare him inactive for all the regular season games but one.

Then last season, Henry had a solid-if-not-spectacular 3.5 sacks and 2 fumble recoveries in 13 games.

Additionally. Henry also ended up being one of the highest graded players by the good folks over at Pro Football Focus last year, and started in a handful of games in which he was given a grade of over 80.0.  And while it's fair to say that Henry hasn’t exactly become a household name yet for Baltimore, he's quickly become an integral part of their defense moving forward.

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Henry and the rest of his Ravens defensive teammates had been told on the sidelines during last week's sack-fest against Mariota, that the team was only 2 sacks shy of breaking their team record (10) once they had sacked Mariota for the 9th time.

Once the word leaked out and spread among the players, Henry told Baltimore Sun writer Jonas Shaffer that he put his "game face" on and came at Mariota even harder. 

“(It was) time to go hunt,” Henry said. “(Once) we heard that, it was time to pin our ears back.”

Henry and the Ravens interior pass rush clearly will be pinning their ears back and coming after Brees on Sunday, which will make it all the more critical for Unger to have a solid performance against the impressive young defender.

Having been in the League for over a decade now, Unger still remains a solid player at his position, and undoubtedly has helped to make the Saints O-Line as an entire group, one of the very best pass-protecting lines anywhere in the NFL.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

But if the Black and Gold expects to leave Baltimore with a 5th straight win and remain on top of the NFC South Division, then they'll be hoping that Unger is able to keep Henry at bay; or at the very least: try to stop him from causing Brees any type of pressure that could potentially have a negative impact for the Saints passing game.

Make no mistake about it: Willie Henry and the top-rated Ravens pass rush will come at Brees in a variety of different ways this Sunday, and it's no secret that the youngster will be coming "straight up the gut" — and it will be up to Unger and the Saints top-rated O-Line, to stop them....


Big Easy Magazine contributing writer and Saints News Network columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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