OWINGS MILLS — Michael Pierce recorded his second interception of training camp Saturday morning during the Baltimore Ravens’ open practice at M&T Bank Stadium.
Interceptions are rare at his position, but he hasn’t always played defensive tackle and he certainly didn’t always weight 340 pounds.
“I made the change right out of high school. I started out at D-end, I was like 290,” Pierce said Sunday at the Under Armour Performance Center. “I kind of beefed up a little bit. It’s kind of helped me, though. I still have pretty good hips for a big guy – still pretty quick. It was tough at first, but I’ve got the hang of it now.”
Despite weighing 50 pounds more than he did back then, Pierce retained a shocking amount of speed for a man his size. He said he still has the awareness that playing on the edge required.
“There’s not many like him,” defensive line coach Joe Cullen said. “Michael has great short-area quickness where he can stick his foot in the ground and redirect. He’s a guy that just brings his hard hat everyday and works to get better everyday.”
Pierce needed to bring that work ethic during his first training camp. Despite have the size of some of the best NFL run stoppers, he went undrafted out of Samford last season.
He was Baltimore’s only undrafted rookie to earn a Week 1 roster spot. Pierce extended the Ravens’ streak of having an undrafted free agent make the team to 13 straight seasons.
“Last year at this time, we really didn’t know who he was until the pads came on,” Cullen said. “Then, you thought ‘OK, wow. This guy might be something.’ And then as the year progressed, he played well.”
Pierce played in all 16 games last season and made one start. He recorded 35 tackles (19 solo) and two sacks.
Pierce made five tackles in his first career start on Nov. 20 against the Dallas Cowboys. He then set a career high with seven tackles in the season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals on New Year’s Day.
Over the offseason, the Ravens traded Timmy Jernigan and let Lawrence Guy leave in free agency. They both started ahead of Pierce, meaning the organization has faith in the second-year defender. Pierce started Thursday’s preseason opener alongside Brandon Williams and Brent Urban on the defensive line.
“It’s been a journey. I can’t explain it,” Pierce said of his one-year journey from undrafted prospect to starter. “I just work hard and don’t really worry about working with the starting guys. I just come out and put everything on the line. That’s what I’m doing right now.”
Cullen pointed out that when Baltimore pressured the quarterback from the edges Thursday night, on two early occasions it was created by Pierce’s push up the middle.
Pierce flies a bit under the radar lining up alongside Williams, who also weighs 340 pounds and is regarded as one of the best nose tackles in football. Baltimore signed Williams to a new five-year, $54 million contract this offseason.
Pierce values the chance to learn from the best, which he also does by studying former Ravens Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata.
Piece thinks having himself and Williams lining up alongside each other gives Baltimore the NFL’s best front against the run, though they don’t need to say it to one another.
“He wants to be great and I want to follow in his footsteps. It goes without saying,” Pierce said. “I think it’s just kind of understood, really. You see the kind of confidence we have in him – the amount of money we just paid him. He’s the best nose guard in the league, in my opinion. I’m just following in his footsteps.”
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