Secondary's Gelling Opens Up Possibilities


After Elvis Dumervil sacked Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan on fourth down last Sunday, the outside linebacker came to the Ravens bench and thanked each of the defensive backs.

Their coverage had made Ryan pump fake twice and ultimately allowed Dumervil time to shed his block for the sack.

The question of what came first – the chicken of the egg – can be applied to NFL defenses. Is a stout pass rush helping the secondary cover for less time? Or is good coverage helping the pass rush reach its target?

Baltimore has three top-notch pass rushers with Terrell Suggs, Pernell McPhee and Dumervil. But the secondary's influence shouldn't be forgotten. And the unit's gelling and atypical style have helped Baltimore's ramped-up defense.

"They really are coming together," Harbaugh said following Sunday's game.

"We're playing very good technique. Our spacing is right, our relationships per coverage, as it relates to the route, has been very good. And I sense a little confidence back there, as far as being aggressive and attacking balls."

The Ravens' ability to mix and match players in their secondary has allowed Baltimore to put the best player in for the best situation.

With Lardarius Webb back healthy – he was injured the first time the Ravens faced the Bengals in a Week 1 loss – he joins Jimmy Smith as the Ravens' starting cornerbacks. Dominique Franks has become the team's third cornerback.

The true variation comes at safety, where an unusual rotation has been implemented.

The main starters have been Darian Stewart and Matt Elam. Both can play cornerback. Elam has bounced down often to play nickel cornerback.

Meanwhile, third-round pick Terrence Brooks and veteran Jeromy Miles have been mostly used in deep coverage. They can patrol the deep secondary. Will Hill, who returned last week after a six-game suspension, can play everywhere, but is listed as a true free safety (the only one with such a designation).

Second-year player Brynden Trawick is built like a linebacker and is especially good near the line of scrimmage. Anthony Levine is one of the team's best special teams players.

While they all have their strengths, they can also all play all over the field. Sometimes Stewart or Elam will play on the line of scrimmage while Webb will play back in zone coverage. Then, just one play later, Elam could be patrolling center field. They can also blitz out of more unusual formations.

"Everybody is just being unselfish and knowing their roles," Elam said. "We know we can all play in this league and contribute. We're all about doing what it takes for the team to win."

"It doesn't really matter who is in the game," Brooks added. "There's a certain standard that we hold out there."

Last week against the Falcons, Brooks led the safeties with 46 snaps. Stewart had 45, Hill and Elam each had 24. The week before, Miles had 32 snaps, Trawick had eight and Levine had four.

Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees said that mixing in so many safeties makes them more tuned into the game plan. Instead of going into a game thinking they're only going to be on special teams, each player must be more prepared for anything.

"When you play a lot of guys and a lot of guys are involved, everybody kind of stays tuned into the game," Pees said. "I just think it just makes the whole unit feel a little more cohesive, too, when everybody really has a lot of roles on the defense."

It seems Hill's return from suspension has changed things up, where now mainly four safeties will play on defense. But all seven were still active while only three cornerbacks were suited up last week against the Falcons.

"It's very unusual," Hill said. "I thought it was kinda funny when I first saw it and heard about it, but it's working so I really can't knock it in any way, shape or form. It's just weird to me."

The Ravens surrendered just 228 passing yards to Ryan and receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White last week. Jones was limited to just 56 receiving yards. He hadn't had that few since 2012, a streak of 17 straight games.

This week, they'll look to contain Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who completed 25 of 38 passes for 301 yards and a touchdown in their Week 1 meeting. He struggled last week in Indianapolis, going 18-for-38 for just 126 yards.

Pees isn't paying attention to that, however.

"Who cares what happened the last game? Really, or the previous six games?" he said. "It's Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh – it's a division game. And you know what? It's always going to be a battle. It's always going to be a dogfight. So, really, what happened to them at the Colts is really, to us, just absolutely insignificant."

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