BALTIMORE – The unique nature of the Baltimore Ravens’ secondary means that choosing a starting strong safety will ultimately come down to two important traits: performance first as well as chemistry with star free safety Ed Reed.
The former NFL Defensive Player of the Year is known for his gambling instincts, baiting quarterbacks into mistakes. That tends to necessitate having the other safety be a stay-at-home type who can cover for Reed when he gets a wild hair.
Whether it’s Bernard Pollard, Tom Zbikowski or Haruki Nakamura who wins the job opposite Reed, it’s going to have to be a comfortable fit.
“With Ed back there, he has to be able to trust the person that he’s next to, and I really believe he trusts me 100 percent,” Pollard said. “Ed wants to get down to the nitty-gritty. He likes to stick his head in there and I like to be back in coverage as well. That’s my main thing with me coming here, ‘Ed, what do you want to do?’
"Because this guy has played this game at a high level his whole career, and I’ve played this game at a high level. Me knowing him, I know that dude’s a roamer. When he roams, you better be careful. My thing is, I better not catch you slipping, because I’m gonna put you out.”
Lately, Pollard is making a strong bid for the position with a start in the Ravens’ 31-13 win over the Kansas City Chiefs one week after intercepting a pass against the Philadelphia Eagles.
A former Houston Texans and Chiefs starter, Pollard’s work with the first-team defense in practice has become extensive since signing a two-year, $2.735 million contract that includes no signing bonus and a $500,000 roster bonus scheduled for next year.
“I’m excited, I’m happy with where I am,” Pollard said. “Obviously, the coaches trust me, my players trust me and that’s what it’s about: 1 other guys trusting you, knowing you’re going to do your job, coming down and filling where you’re supposed to fill.
“I wouldn’t be out there if the coaches didn’t trust me and I wouldn’t be out there if the players didn’t trust me. I’m a professional, I love the game of football and I just excited because of what we have. Looking towards the future as far as the season, it’s going to be exciting.”
The Ravens seem to have three viable options at strong safety.
They could go with Pollard, a 6-foot-1, 228-pound enforcer who resembles an outside linebacker.
Pollard led the Texans with 111 tackles last season to go with four forced fumbles and 2 1/2sacks. The NFL adopted the so-called Tom Brady rule to protect quarterbacks from lunging tackles after Pollard put the New England Patriots’ star out for a season with a low blow that tore his anterior cruciate ligament.
He was also fined $40,000 by the league office last year for his concussion-causing hit on Tennessee Titans wide receiver Justin Gage.
“We’ll bring him after the quarterback even if they know it’s coming,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “He’s a man, he’s all man. He’ll hit you.”
The Ravens also could start Zbikowski, a rangy former third-round draft pick from Notre Dame who started six games last season and doubles as an undefeated professional cruiserweight boxer
And then there’s Nakamura, who turned in the top performance of any of the safeties against the Chiefs.
In a reserve role, Nakamura had four tackles and one sack on a safety blitz where he slammed rookie quarterback Ricky Stanzi to the ground.
Midway through the preseason, the competition hardly seems closed even though Pollard has made a power move.
The Ravens started Zbikowski in the first game and Pollard in the second, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if Nakamura got his turn this week against the Washington Redskins. If Pollard starts again, it would be a telling indicator about the depth chart and the coaches’ thinking.
“Definitely, the biggest thing has just been learning the defense, understanding the terminology and everything else,” Pollard said. “That comes with being a pro. I’m in my playbook every day and I’m learning. I have everything down. It’s learning who’s next to me, who’s going to do this and do that. And if we communicate, we’re on point.”
The strong safety job became vacant after Dawan Landry signed a five-year, $27.5 million contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars that included a $6.5 million signing bonus after five seasons in Baltimore operating next to Reed.
In terms of build and playing style, Pollard resembles Landry the closest.
“Yeah, there’s some similarities, but we’re two different players,” Pollard said. “He plays his game at a high level; I think I play this game at a high level. I bring so many different things to the game as far as do you want to blitz me or put me back in coverage. What I’m focused on is one thing: winning.”