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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Yanda First Ravens Pro Bowl Guard; Seven Make AFC Team



By Joe Platania

December 28, 2011

The Ravens have always prided themselves on being tough guys. In football, the toughest guys are in the trenches.

Yet, no offensive guard wearing a purple uniform had ever been named to the Pro Bowl ... until now.

Starting right guard Marshal Yanda
may be nursing bruised ribs and a bruised thigh, but he accomplished what stalwart Edwin Mulitalo surprisingly never did; he is one of seven Ravens players named to the AFC Pro Bowl squad on Tuesday night.

The seven-player haul -- which could increase, depending on players from other teams that choose not to go to Hawaii -- marks the second-largest in Ravens history; eight Baltimore players were named to the league's annual all-star game after the 2003 and 2006 seasons. In 2003, they shared the league lead with Kansas City.

The others were fullback Vonta Leach (during his first season as a Raven), running back Ray Rice and the team's four defensive headliners: defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, linebackers Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis, and free safety Ed Reed.

There were seven Ravens that won the fan balloting at their positions, but tackle Michael Oher (a fourth alternate) did not get enough player and coach support and fell off the roster while Rice, who lost the fan vote at his spot to Houston's Arian Foster, graduated to the team.

Yanda's first selection is especially newsworthy, given the Ravens' Pro Bowl drought at the position and the productivity of players like Yanda in the team's offense.

Yanda,
the second of two third-round picks in the 2007 draft (86th overall), has not committed a penalty all year and has helped pace running back Ray Rice to an NFL-high 1,869 scrimmage yards and 1,173 rushing yards, fifth in the league.

"I am ecstatic," Yanda said. "That is really the only thing I can say. This is such a great honor, something that I never really expected. When I made it to the NFL, I was so happy to be on a team and playing in the league, and now, to be a part of a Pro Bowl team is something very special.

"You don't get there alone; you have to be on a good team and playing well as a unit. I am thankful for my teammates and coaches who helped me get to where I am."

One of those was certainly Rice, named to his second Pro Bowl during a three-year span.

If he gets a mere 4 receiving yards in Cincinnati this Sunday, he will become the second player in NFL history to have multiple seasons of 1,000 yards rushing and 700 yards receiving; Marshall Faulk was the first.

"This is a great honor, and I really want to thank my offensive line and coaches for helping me to become the player I am," Rice said. "This is a team award, and I hope that everyone on our team can take pride in the fact that they helped seven of their teammates attain this honor.

"Also, thanks to my peers, coaches and fans that voted me in. But, I will celebrate after the season. We have unfinished business to take care of over the next few weeks.”

Leach can certainly say the same, as he was allowed to leave the Houston Texans as a free agent, signing with Baltimore during the post-lockout-shortened offseason. Along with Yanda and the line, Leach was just as responsible as anyone for Rice's 2011 outburst.

"This means a lot to me, especially with it being my first year on a new team," Leach said. "With changing teams, the lockout and trying to learn a new playbook, I am so proud and happy to be going with my backfield mate [Ray Rice]. This is a great thing and something to celebrate.

"But, that will have to wait until after the season. Right now we are getting ready for Cincinnati and a strong playoff run."

When Leach took the lead at his position at the last minute, he became the seventh Raven who ended the Pro Bowl fan voting period in first place before the coaches and players tallied their ballots earlier this week.

Each voting bloc (fans, coaches, players) counts one-third toward the final total. A record number of votes were cast by fans this year, with more than 100,000,000 casting ballots on NFL.com and through their mobile phones.

The NFL is the only major professional sports league to combine those three elements into its all-star game voting and was the first league to offer online input, in 1995. Major League Baseball has had All-Star Game ballots cast by fans for starting position players in each league since 1969, and occasionally even before then.

The overall leading vote-getter in this year's Pro Bowl tally was Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, with nearly 1.6 million votes. New England quarterback Tom Brady led the AFC fan vote with 1.4 million votes.

Each roster will have 43 players, two fewer than the normal regular-season game-day total.

For a third straight year, the Pro Bowl is taking place on the idle Sunday between the conference title games and the Super Bowl.

The game will be played at 7 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Jan. 29 at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu and will be seen on NBC (WBAL-TV, Channel 11), the same network carrying the Super Bowl the following Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Two years ago, an experiment during which the game took place at the Super Bowl site -- in that case, Miami's Sun Life Stadium -- was a ratings hit, if only for the curiosity factor. But the game has returned to Hawaii, the venue from 1980-2009, the subsequent two years.

Since the Pro Bowl took on its current post-merger AFC-vs.-NFC format in 1971, the AFC holds a slim 21-20 advantage. The NFC has won three of the last four games and four of the last six.

In order to provide an incentive for players to participate, the per-man bonus money has increased dramatically from 1971 levels, which doled out $2,000 per player to the winning team and $1,500 to the losing side.

For the last three years, the winning team has received $45,000 per player, with the defeated squad getting $22,500 per man. There has not yet been any indication whether those figures will be going up again this year.

The honored Ravens, for the most part, already have lengthy Pro Bowl resumes.

Leach was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2008, his first full season with the Houston Texans after three years in Green Bay and a stop in New Orleans; he graduated to starter's status last year.

Ray Rice's lead blocker is also no stranger to all-star play, having taken part in the 2003 Blue-Gray All-Star classic after his senior year at East Carolina, winning offensive MVP honors during that game.

For Lewis, this year's Pro Bowl is his eighth straight and 13th of his career. Reed was named to his sixth straight Pro Bowl team and eighth of his tenure. Suggs made his fifth Pro Bowl team and, strangely enough, first in an odd-numbered year. Ngata's Pro Bowl is his third straight.

"First off, I definitely want to give a tremendous amount of credit to my coaches, especially Clarence Brooks and Ted Monachino," Suggs said. "Without them, I wouldn't be where I am now. I felt like a kid when I got the call; I was excited and honored.

"This wouldn't be possible without my teammates. Without the secondary making the QBs hold the ball, or the linebackers plugging up those holes, I wouldn't have the chance to do what I do, and I am thankful for them. I also want to thank the fans who voted for me.

"But to be clear, I have no intentions of playing in the Pro Bowl. I plan on being in practice with my teammates that week, getting ready for the Super Bowl.”

All told, 78 Ravens have been awarded Pro Bowl berths in team history, an average of almost five per year.

Besides Oher's fourth-alternate status, quarterback Joe Flacco and safety Bernard Pollard were third alternates, special teamer Brendan Ayanbadejo was tabbed as a second alternate and, for the third time, left guard Ben Grubbs is a first alternate.

For purposes of clarification, the above Pro Bowl totals merely indicate how many teams to which each player has been named, not how many in which he has played.

For example, Reed has played in just six of the eight Pro Bowls to which he has been formally invited, missing the last two years because of hip and ankle injuries, as well as a death in the family.

In 2006, tackle Jonathan Ogden, fighting a toe injury that would eventually force him to retire, made the trip to Hawaii, but did not play.

That same year, linebacker Bart Scott filled in for Lewis (hand) and quarterback Steve McNair's place was taken by then-Tennessee Titans starter Vince Young.

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