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The Ravens have one of the NFL’s best defenses. Meet the two men who set the tone

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SB Nation sat down with Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams to talk about everything from tackling Le’Veon Bell to John Harbaugh’s INTENSE paintball game.

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Have you ever wanted to get inside the mind of a wrecking ball? What about two wrecking balls? Not literal wrecking balls, but two of the biggest players in the league — and two of the best at their respective position.

Baltimore Ravens defensive tackles Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce are two of my favorite players in the NFL — a pair of rugged, offensive line-detonating nose tackles. Players like Williams and Pierce don’t typically get a chance to shine in the spotlight, but they’re leaders of arguably the best defense in the NFL.

Both players came from smaller schools. Williams was a third-round pick out of Missouri Southern in 2013. Pierce was undrafted in 2016 after finishing his collegiate career at Samford University.

And while neither Williams nor Pierce has made a Pro Bowl, they share an interesting story as integral parts of a defense with Super Bowl aspirations. Both of them had a lot to say about their path to the NFL, what it’s like to play their position, helpful advice on gaining weight, and some weird things John Harbaugh obsesses over.

How did they get here?

SB Nation: The start of your careers were a little different. The Ravens spent a premium draft pick on Brandon while Pierce came in as an undrafted free agent, but did that small school experience give you a connection off the bat?

Brandon Williams: Yeah, a little bit. We play the same position and a young guy coming in as a free agent, it’s my job being the older guy to help him and push him as I can. I think over the course of training camp and offseason workouts and OTAs, we just created a bond and jelled. Once he [Pierce] made the 53-man roster, it just kept growing.

SBN: When you guys were coming out of high school did you have opportunities to play Division I football, or were Missouri Southern and Samford places that you wanted to go?

Williams: For me, I had offers coming out. I-A and I-AA offers. When it was time for football, I was about to get Prop 48’d [meaning his grades weren’t good enough] and all my Division I offers were for offensive line.

Michael Pierce: Personally for me, I played linebacker in high school. So, uh, I weighed 260. Nobody really knew that I was going to turn into a defensive lineman. I started off at Tulane University, that’s Division I — part of the American Athletic Conference.

SBN: Wait. How did you go from being a 260-pound linebacker to being a giant, run-stuffing nose tackle.

Pierce: It’s a story so —

Williams: EAT! EAT!

Pierce: So I got into weightlifting A LOT after football ended during my senior year in high school. By the time I reported to Tulane, I was 280. In the American Athletic Conference, they don’t have a lot of big, big defensive tackles — it’s a finesse league, they have a lot of spread offenses. So, our 280-pound guys were defensive tackles.

I had a defensive line coach by the name of John Hendrick; he played in the NFL. He was like, “Dude, if you can gain 10 or 15 more pounds, you can probably get a shot in the NFL as a nose guard. You’re really quick, you’re really strong, but you need to continue to build a base and continue to put on some pounds.”

By the time I hit 300 pounds ... man, it was all downhill.

SBN: Did you have a little go-to meal while you were gaining weight?

Pierce: They put me on kind of a strict meal plan. So I would have like eggs and oatmeal. I’ve always had a love for pasta. So I would go for chicken pasta, or anything with pasta ... I was eating that at least twice a day.

SBN: When you finally got to the NFL, what was your moment where you realize “I belong here, I can definitely compete with these guys”?

Pierce: We have mantra: “You’re not a Raven until you make plays and do it against the Steelers.” I had a big tackle for loss against the Steelers. It was a home game, against Le’Veon Bell. Everyone knows the dynamic back he is. That play let me know that I belong and I can make these kind of plays for this team, and I fit in with this defense pretty well.

Williams: It’s a little different for me. I felt like I was good enough to play because football is football, you know? It’s a different level, just a little faster. My rookie year, I had a turf toe injury in the last game of preseason, so I didn’t get off to the start that I wanted to. After I finally started coming back, started making a few more plays later in the season, I started playing better. I started feeling more confident in myself, but I didn’t feel like I was confident enough to be a big player in the defense until my second year, when I kind of broke out a little bit more.

The fine art of stopping the run

SBN: You guys are primarily run stoppers. That’s what you guys would classify yourselves as, right?

Williams: Yeah! I think so. Jack-of-all-trades with a master’s in run stopping.

SBN: Do you find that rushing the passer from the nose tackle spot is difficult? And why do you think it is so hard?

Williams: I would say yes it is. The center has help — he has a guard on each side, so you’re usually receiving a double team or some type of slide your way. Also, we’re the ones that have to take up the blocks and make sure the gaps are open for the linebackers. We try to get a rush, but it’s tough because there’s just not enough space to do what you want to, like it is for a guy like Sizz [Terrell Suggs] or [Matt] Judon.

Pierce: When you’re rushing with guys like Sizz and Judon, you don’t want to handcuff those guys. We gotta take up those guards so they can have two-way gos. They’re dynamic pass rushers, so you want to give those guys as much free rein as possible.

SBN: Do you guys enjoy playing run defense over rushing the passer? Or do you wish you were like Aaron Donald out here, getting 10 sacks a year?

Williams: I’ve gotten paid stopping the run. You can get paid to stop the run, obviously. I’ve had a couple sacks, a few sacks. Pierce is over here trying to get his sacks so he can get paid. From the beginning, yeah I want my sacks, I’m trying to get my sacks, but at the same time I’ve shown that you don’t have to be a crazy pass rusher to get paid or be known as a good player in this league.

Pierce: From my perspective, I just look at myself and Brandon and we’re the tone-setters of the defense. “We need our bullies to be bullies,” as Sizz would say.

The toughest lines to play and the hardest backs to stop

SBN: What are some of the toughest offensive lines as an entire unit that you guys have gone against?

Pierce: My rookie year [2016], Dallas.

Williams: Yeah, Dallas.

Pierce: Dallas. Was. Ridiculous. They had all those first-rounders and Dallas got rolling. Pittsburgh is always a tough game for us — they have amazing offensive linemen as well.

Oakland. Kelechi Osemele, who was here, is a beast. Rodney Hudson’s from my hometown. He’s a beast. Donald Penn has been in the league for 10-plus years. They have an awesome line too.

SBN: What about the toughest individual guys you’ve played against? You brought up Osemele and I’m sure guys like Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster are up there too.

Williams: The best one I go to is back from when I was coming up in this game: Alex Mack. Back when he was the center for the Browns. When I could play against him and have big games, that’s when I knew I was becoming a really good player. He would be my test, or Pouncey would be my test. We were going against Pro Bowlers almost every week, especially with those two in the AFC North. Mack would be one of the best I’ve gone against, other than [teammate Marshal] Yanda.

Pierce: In conference, I would probably say Pouncey. Outside of conference, Travis Frederick with the Cowboys. He’s uh ... he’s the real deal, man.

SBN: What about some of the toughest running backs to bring down. In the division it’d have to be Le’Veon?

Pierce: Oh yeah, without a doubt.

Williams: Yeah. He’s so hard to find, because he’s so patient. Tough in general, or just in our conference?

SBN: Both.

Pierce: Outside the conference ... I mean we’ve played Marshawn Lynch, but they didn’t really feed him the ball last year and Brandon was out that game. Obviously, you can see the kind of damage he can do once he gets rolling. Man, Le’Veon is such a dynamic back that it’s hard to look outside of our conference, to be honest.

SBN: When it comes to trying to play against Le’Veon Bell, is the hardest part, like you said, just trying to find him behind the offensive line? Because he’ll just sit and wait and wait and wait until something opens up. Or is it the physical act of bringing him down to the ground?

Williams: The act of waiting more than bringing him down to the ground. But when he gets into space, it is hard to bring him down to the ground. Him being such a patient back and waiting for the holes to develop, and the holes to open up, and us to make a mistake and jump out of a hole because we’re not staying in our gap, that’s where he’s dangerous.

Pierce: When you have a back like that, or any back really, you don’t see them break tackles on 300-pound nose tackles unless they’re in space. Once you get him in the box, which is extremely, extremely hard to do, that’s where you see the tackles from people that are our size. When he gets you in space, you have a very slim chance of making that tackle.

“A really, really intense guy”

SBN: Last question. What are some the funniest interactions you had with John Harbaugh?

Pierce: Coach Harbaugh, if you don’t know him, is a really, really intense guy. To see him play paintball last year was ...

Williams: OH YEAH!

Pierce: Paintball was crazy, he was running everywhere. Like a spider monkey, just moving. Getting jacked up, it was a great time.

SBN: Do you remember how he did in paintball? Did he do well or was he one of the worst players out there?

Williams and Pierce simultaneously: His team won.

Pierce: It may have been rigged. He might not have quite won, but it’s the head coach’s team. So yeah, he won.