2 Baltimore RAVENS

The defense has question marks in the secondary and no apparent answers
September 05, 2010

EARLY IN the off-season, Ravens defensive assistants Clarence Brooks and Ted Monachino put all of their linemen and linebackers through what the team called Pass Rush School. Fundamentals of hand placement, paths to the quarterback, footwork and coordinating moves with teammates on the rush were among the lessons taught and retaught. "We tried to be great teachers of the basic mechanics of the rush," says defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. "Sometimes, when you draft a guy to rush the passer and he had great success in college, you think, O.K., we got ourselves a pass rusher. But it's not that easy. The guy has to continue to grow to get to the quarterback in this league."

There was a reason for the defensive staff's new curriculum: This year there is no Super Bowl contender with a weakness at one position as glaring as Baltimore's is at cornerback. The team's top corner, Domonique Foxworth, is out for the season with a right ACL tear, meaning the starters are Raiders reject Fabian Washington, 27, and a second-year player from Nicholls State, Lardarius Webb, who are both trying to rebound from late-2009 ACL surgery. (Both Washington and Webb are expected to be ready come Week 1.) With those question marks in the defensive backfield, the Ravens' front seven will have to graduate Pass Rush School quickly—and with flying colors.

Under former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, Baltimore deployed the league's most exotic blitz packages—four rushers over one gap, for instance—and the reward was usually worth the risk. (From 2005 through '08 the team ranked second in total defense.) But because the Ravens are not inclined to strand Washington and Webb on islands without safety support, the team will be unable to rely on the blitz as much. With the NFL's growing emphasis on the throwing game (teams averaged a healthy 35.4 pass plays a game last year), Mattison & Co. know that they'll be exposing their subpar corners in man coverage whenever they do.

"We have to be relentless in both the four- and three-man rush this year," says defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. "We don't want to leave our corners without help. We've all got to rush better without blitzing."

The problem at corner is exacerbated by the health of safety Ed Reed, who turns 32 on Sept. 11, is coming off surgery on his hip and has a chronic neck problem. He spent the early days of training camp not practicing but rather shuttling between camp in Westminster, Md., and his hip rehab specialist in Atlanta. Desperate for secondary help, Baltimore scouted every team in person the first two weeks of the preseason. The staff made a depth chart of the league's backup corners, dusted off college reports on players they liked two and three drafts ago and looked to see if any were worth pursuing in a trade.

Some of the pressure, regardless of any late-preseason roster shuffling, will fall on veteran cornerback Chris Carr. But he's had 10 career starts in five seasons with Oakland, Tennessee and Baltimore, and at 5'10" he'd be in over his head if asked to start for a prolonged period. "I don't know what everyone's saying about us, and it doesn't matter," Carr says. "I watch the History Channel and HBO, not sports. But I think we're a good secondary, and we have a chance to be elite. We had the eighth-rated pass defense in the league last year with all the injuries we put up with. We're a confident group, whatever outsiders think of us."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh agrees. "We don't need a Revis Island kind of guy here," he says, referring to the Jets shutdown cornerback, Darrelle Revis. "We need good players at the position playing at the top of their game. The only thing I'm worried about—say, with a guy like Lardarius Webb—is that a guy might be back playing, but will he be back playing as explosively and confidently as he did right away?"

Over the last decade Baltimore's defense has always played aggressively, with a chip on its collective shoulder. It's been rare that an offensive coordinator has studied the Ravens and said he can see an obvious weakness. But they will get thrown on this year, and to be a playoff team they will need to win their share of shootouts. It's been a long time since Baltimore has entered a season thinking that way.

PROJECTED STARTERS

WITH 2009 STATS

COACH JOHN HARBAUGH

OFFENSE

2009 Rank: 13

QB JOE FLACCO

G 16

ATT 499

COMP 315

PCT 63.1

YARDS 3,613

TD 21

INT 12

RATING 88.9

RB RAY RICE

G 16

ATT 254

YARDS 1,339

AVG 5.3

REC 78

YARDS 702

AVG 9.0

TTD 8

FB LE'RON MCCLAIN

G 16

ATT 46

YARDS 180

AVG 3.9

REC 21

YARDS 141

AVG 6.7

TTD 2

WR ANQUAN BOLDIN

G 15

REC 84

YARDS 1,024

TTD 5

WR DERRICK MASON

G 16

REC 73

YARDS 1,028

TTD 7

TE TODD HEAP

G 16

REC 53

YARDS 593

TTD 6

LT MICHAEL OHER

G 16

HT 6'4"

WT 309

LG BEN GRUBBS

G 16

HT 6'3"

WT 315

C MATT BIRK

G 16

HT 6'4"

WT 309

RG MARSHAL YANDA

G 16

HT 6'3"

WT 310

RT JARED GAITHER

G 11

HT 6'9"

WT 330

DEFENSE

2009 Rank: 3

DE CORY REDDING

G 15

TACKLES 20

SACKS 2

INT 0

NT KELLY GREGG

G 16

TACKLES 63

SACKS 3

INT 0

DT HALOTI NGATA

G 14

TACKLES 35

SACKS 1½

INT 0

LB JARRET JOHNSON

G 16

TACKLES 50

SACKS 6

INT 2

LB RAY LEWIS

G 16

TACKLES 134

SACKS 3

INT 0

LB JAMEEL MCCLAIN

G 16

TACKLES 30

SACKS 0

INT 0

LB TERRELL SUGGS

G 13

TACKLES 59

SACKS 4½

INT 0

CB LARDARIUS WEBB

G 14

TACKLES 35

SACKS 1

INT 0

FS ED REED

G 12

TACKLES 50

SACKS 0

INT 3

SS DAWAN LANDRY

G 16

TACKLES 89

SACKS 0

INT 4

CB FABIAN WASHINGTON

G 10

TACKLES 37

SACKS 0

INT 0

SPECIAL TEAMS

P SAM KOCH

PUNTS 73

AVG 43.7

NET 37.9

K BILLY CUNDIFF

FG 18--23

XP 23--23

POINTS 77

PR CHRIS CARR

RET 32

AVG 8.2

TD 0

KR JALEN PARMELE

RET 9

AVG 31.4

TD 0

New acquisition

TTD: Total touchdowns

2010 SCHEDULE

2009 Record: 9-7

September

13 at N.Y. Jets (M)

19 at Cincinnati

26 Cleveland

October

3 at Pittsburgh

10 Denver

17 at New England

24 Buffalo

31 BYE

November

7 Miami

11 at Atlanta (T)

21 at Carolina

28 Tampa Bay

December

5 Pittsburgh

13 at Houston (M)

19 New Orleans

26 at Cleveland

January

2 Cincinnati

(M) Monday (T) Thursday

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL Rank: T12

Opponents' 2009 winning percentage: .508

Games against 2009 playoff teams: 5

ANALYSIS

The NFL's trash-talking title will be on the line in the first two weeks, when Baltimore plays the equally mouthy Jets and Bengals. More to the playoff point, the Ravens only face one top passing team in the first half of '10 (and Pittsburgh won't have Ben Roethlisberger in Week 4), so their injury-depleted secondary will be able to jell—in time to take on the Saints in wintry Baltimore.

SPOTLIGHT

Joe Flacco, Quarterback

WITH THE Ravens' off-season acquisitions at skill positions—Anquan Boldin and Donte' Stallworth at receiver, draft picks Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta at tight end—they now have the depth to be a top five scoring team. (Baltimore ranked ninth last year.) Achieving that will start with third-year quarterback Flacco, who will be asked to improve on his ascending performance in 2009.

The one thing he doesn't have to work on is his confidence. Asked in mid-August if he hoped the Jets will be without cornerback Darrelle Revis when the Ravens play New York in Week 1, Flacco shrugged. "If he plays, he plays," he said. "We're going to attack both their corners anyway."

He has been helped this off-season by two arrivals: quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn, the former coach of the Redskins, and 33-year-old backup quarterback Marc Bulger, who had big years with the Rams. They've helped by speeding up Flacco's reads and his overall game. Zorn, Flacco says, has taught him to "be compact, be explosive at all times, don't waste motion." Bulger was schooled in Mike Martz's offense in St. Louis to throw to precise spots before the receiver turned his head toward the passer. "Seeing how Marc trusts his receivers," Flacco says, "that's where I want to get with them."

Getting comfortable with a precise route runner like Boldin and a deep threat like Stallworth was Flacco's big task this summer. "He had two passes today that were [more] anticipated and quicker than any in his three years here," said offensive coordinator Cam Cameron as training camp closed. The Bulger and Zorn influences are working.

PHOTOELSA/GETTY IMAGESUSED CARR The Ravens are so thin at corner that the journeyman Carr may play a lot. PHOTOSIMON BRUTY

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