OWINGS MILLS — Joe Flacco zeroed in on his intended target, confident that he could rifle the football into the waiting hands of wide receiver Tandon Doss.
The Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback was mistaken, though.
Veteran cornerback Corey Graham anticipated the pass, instinctively bursting in front of Doss for the interception last week. And Graham punctuated the turnover by racing into the end zone, having a bit of fun by taunting Flacco as he pursued him in vain.
It wasn’t an aberration for the Pro Bowl special-teams ace.
It’s practically been the rule for Graham, who has arguably made more big plays and intercepted more passes than any other defensive back since the launch of training camp.
Although Graham isn’t in line for a starting job and the Ravens primarily signed him to a two-year, $3.7 million deal to upgrade their struggling kick coverage units, he also came here because the defending AFC North champions promised him an honest opportunity to play in the secondary.
That wasn’t the case when he played for the Chicago Bears, according to Graham.
“That was definitely a big reason why I signed here,” said Graham, who received a $1.2 million signing bonus in March. “It meant a lot to me. I didn’t think I would get an opportunity in Chicago. It wasn’t going my way. I wanted to go somewhere else, get a fresh start, let some new eyes see me and hopefully get an opportunity if I play well to get a chance to play.”
Graham did his homework before joining the Ravens, speaking with former Bears Pro Bowl special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo about how the Ravens coaching staff expanded his role to include a role at linebacker that didn’t exist for him in Chicago.
"I didn’t just wing it, I talked to B.A," Graham said. "I’ve seen B.A. go from just playing only on special teams to playing on defense. When he was in Chicago I remember them saying he would never play on defense. It’s all about the situation. That’s why when you make these decisions you try to make what’s best for you, and I think I’ve made a great decision so far."
Graham intercepted a career-high three passes during his final season in Chicago last year, tying for second on the team.
He also led the Bears with 22 special-teams tackles and has 104 special-teams tackles for his career.
In four of the past five seasons, Graham has at least 20 special-teams tackles.
Graham said his prowess on special teams took precedence over his defensive abilities with Bears coach Lovie Smith.
“That’s just how it was,” Graham said. “It didn’t really matter what I did. I could go out there in training camp and lead the team in interceptions. I could go out there every day and make plays. What it came down to in Chicago I was just going to be a special-teams guy. That’s just what Lovie wanted from me.
“Even in meetings, that’s all he talked about: ‘Corey is our guy on special teams.’ No matter if I go out there and get six picks in practice, he would say something about special teams. That’s just how it is. It’s not like I don’t want to do special teams. I’ve done it my whole life. I enjoy it, but some situations are better than others.”
The Ravens are counting on Graham, 27, being more than just a special-teams guy. They have lined him up all over the field, and he’s been producing.
Graham has intercepted passes in almost every practice. On Thursday, a drop by wide receiver Jacoby Jones ricocheted into Graham’s hands in a red-zone drill.
“We are really pleased with him,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “Again, there is a type of guy that is versatile. He has come in and played some corner. We knew he was a real good special-teams player. We put him in at nickel. Very smart, very intelligent, love guys like that. Hard worker, doesn’t say, ‘Boo.’ Just goes to work.
“Told him to learn a little safety, you never know what might happen. We always want to try to have all our bases covered. He does it. So, just really, really pleased with where he is right now.”
That goes double for Graham, a former New Hampshire all-purpose standout who spent the first five seasons of his career with the Bears.
Graham said signing with the Ravens is the best decision he’s ever made in his life short of marrying his wife, Alison.
“I love it,” he said. “Before I signed here, they said if you show you deserve to be on the field, then you’ll be on the field. That’s all you can ask for. I was used to a situation that no matter what I did I wasn’t getting on the field. It was going to take an injury, no matter what. No matter if I had 50 interceptions, it didn’t matter.
"I just wanted to get an opportunity to get with a coach who stays to his word. If you show you deserve to be out there, you’ll be out there. I’m not asking to be a starter. I just want to play.”
Graham has 117 career tackles, four interceptions, 10 pass deflections, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
His self-scouting report is modest.
"I make plays," Graham said. "I got good ball skills. I make plays. I know the game. I know what’s happening. I read routes pretty well. I’m all right. I can hold my own."
Soaking up Pees’ complex scheme, Graham feels challenged creatively.
He noted a stark contrast to his old Bears playbook.
“It’s amazing, man,” Graham said. “It’s a lot of stuff going on. You never know where you’re going to be at or what’s going to happen. It’s not predictable. It’s night and day from everything I played in Chicago.
“So, it’s something I’m definitely getting used to. It’s something I really like. I’ve never seen anything like it. Just learning all the different defenses and the different things you can do it’s like a kid in a candy store every day.”
Five years of playing special teams is how Graham built his reputation and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl last season.
Instinctive, tough and durable, Graham is extremely difficult to deal with on the outside as a gunner.
"A lot of heart, man," Graham said. "Most of the time, you’re going against two guys. Guys are going to get their hands on you. It’s a fight. When it comes down to it, the toughest guy is going to win most of the time. You just got to be tougher.
"It’s the hardest position in football, to me. I think playing gunner is harder than playing corner in this league. It’s definitely a fight. You’re going to win some, you’re going to lose some. The key is you have to win more than you lose."
Earlier this week, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg drew up a play specifically intended to neutralize Graham.
It didn’t work.
"The whole design of the play was to beat him and he didn’t fall for it," Rosburg said. "And he called me out right afterwards. So, yeah, he’s very crafty. He’s good to have in the room, too, because he can help a lot of the young players."
Graham laughed when told that Rosburg had described him as crafty.
"Crafty’s all right," Graham said. "Sometimes, it can be good. Sometimes, it can be bad. Sometimes, they call the mediocre receiver that finds a way to catch the ball crafty. On special teams, it’s all right, but I don’t want to be a crafty cornerback, I’ll tell you that."
What does it take to be an effective gunner?
There’s a strategy to what Graham does, but it’s centered on one critical goal: being the first man down the field and making the tackle.
"To be honest with you there’s more to it than people think," Graham said. "It’s a lot of film study, a lot of watching. You have to know who you’re going against and know what they go for. I’m not just out there freestyling. If I’m going against a double-team, I know the safety’s the weak link and will go for an inside fake every time, then I might fake him inside and come back outside.
"There’s an art to it, there’s a skill to it. There’s a lot of studying to it and a lot of toughness to it." if I can get in a system where they allow me to play football I can make a lot of good football plays. Just like on kickoff when I’m a gunner, I’m not just running out there. When I see something, I know how to play it."