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Secondary Must Avoid Breakdowns Against Baker, Beckham and Browns


For two straight weeks, miscommunication in the Ravens' secondary has led to huge plays by opponents.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns are bringing two wide receivers to M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday who specialize in big plays – Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry – catching passes from an aggressive downfield thrower in quarterback Baker Mayfield.

This week, there is a sense of urgency for the Ravens to eliminate their secondary breakdowns.

"How we played defensively I believe is nowhere near us, nowhere near how we roll," safety Tony Jefferson said. "We're on to Cleveland. Last week happened. We'll show up this week."

Baltimore expects to have one of the league's top secondaries. But the season-ending neck injury to Tavon Young and knee injury to Jimmy Smith that has sidelined him the past two weeks has presented new challenges.

Not everything has gone smoothly. In Week 2, the Ravens gave up a 54-yard completion to Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who was left running wide open in the secondary. A future Hall of Fame receiver like Fitzgerald is not supposed to be left uncovered.

In Week 3 against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Ravens were burned for an 83-yard touchdown catch by speedster Mecole Hardman. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is fully capable of throwing into tight windows. But on this occasion, the Ravens left the window wide open.

With Smith and Young out of the lineup, three of the Ravens' younger players in the secondary have seen increased playing time. Maurice Canady played 46 percent of the defensive snaps against the Chiefs, cornerback Anthony Averett played 41 percent, and safety Chuck Clark played 32 percent.

Everybody has trouble stopping the Chiefs' potent offense, and when Mahomes feels he has a mismatch, he is quick to exploit it. Ravens safety Earl Thomas pointed out that on Hardman's touchdown, Baltimore's best cover cornerback Marlon Humphrey was on the sideline dealing with a hip injury.

"The communication wasn't there, and that's what we need to continue to work on," Thomas said. "When young guys come in, or guys that aren't usually in those spots come in, we definitely have to get them up to speed and communicate, and make sure they know what's going on as well."

The Browns will study Baltimore's defensive breakdowns, looking for ways to get Beckham and Landry to cause confusion. In Week 17 against the Ravens last year, Landry averaged 20.4 yards per catch (five catches, 102 yards). Beckham is one of the NFL's premier playmakers who burned Baltimore for a career-high 222 yards and two touchdowns in 2016 when he played for the New York Giants.

Ravens Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale doesn't want a rerun of Beckham or Landry running free in the secondary like Hardman or Fitzgerald. For Martindale, watching tape of the Chiefs game wasn't fun.

"I lost four pounds this week because I watched it three times and threw up all three times," Martindale said. "We're on to the Browns. It's not like we were great on every game last year.

"It's communication across the board. It's communication from me, it's communication up front, in the back end, it's not just the secondary. The best way to fix that is that is to keep working to get better at our communication, which we've talked about since OTAs. Different guys get put in different situations and they have to learn from it." 

How the Ravens function in the secondary has changed with the departure of veteran safety Eric Weddle, who joined the Los Angeles Rams during free agency. However, Thomas is a six-time Pro Bowler and the Ravens believe they've had enough time during training camp and the preseason to avoid some of the mistakes they've made.

Martindale referenced last year's game against the Carolina Panthers in Week 8 as a turning point for the defense. Baltimore lost that game, 36-21, and the Panthers dominated the game offensively. However, the Ravens made adjustments and played their best football over the second half of the season, finishing with the league's No. 1-ranked defense.

Just three games into the season, the Ravens believe they'll still have one of the league's top defenses. The next challenge comes Sunday, when Beckham, Landry, and Mayfield will put Baltimore's ability to stop big plays to another test.

"Anytime you have new faces and moving parts on defense, you risk the possibility of communication breakdowns," cornerback Brandon Carr said. "But the great defenses, that's what they pride themselves on. Next man up mentality. Everybody's on the same page, executing the game plan. No excuses about new faces, chemistry, whatever the case is. This is Week 4, we got to find a way to get better."

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