For a Baltimore Ravens team that drafted 10 players in the 2013 draft and had plenty of roster turnover, by season’s end, only one rookie was able to take on a fulltime role.
Safety Matt Elam took advantage of the lack of depth (and talent) at both safety positions, was able to grab a starting safety spot in the second week of the regular season and never looked back.
The situation wasn’t ideal, as Elam played alongside another guy – James Ihedigbo – whose skill set is best suited for the strong safety position. The two were forced to alternate between strong and free, with mixed results.
Elam, however, made the most of his first season in the NFL, finishing with the fourth-most defensive snaps on the team with 1,034.
He had to learn on the spot, but overall the Elam-Ihedigbo duo turned out to be better than expected.
The rookie’s play was, for the most part, a direct copy of his tendencies at Florida, which was both good and bad.
Moving forward, Elam likely takes over as the fulltime strong safety, with the Ravens ideally finding a more cover-centric safety to play opposite him in 2014, with Ihedigbo set to be a free agent.
Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals was a microcosm of Elam as a player and Elam’s rookie season as a whole.
Let’s take a look at Elam’s performance on Sunday.
Elam’s most notable play was his most costly one. Getting left on an island in deep coverage against A.J. Green probably ranks at the bottom of Elam’s totem pole for ideal situations.
Nonetheless, that’s the situation in which he found himself.
With the Ravens in zone coverage, once Green made it past the first line of defense, it was just he and Elam.
By the time Green makes his cut toward the middle of the field, Elam is just beginning to open his hips. He doesn’t fully turn his hips until Green is already past him.
With Green being several inches taller and with longer legs, once he gets past Elam, it’s over, since there is no way of Elam catching up. That results in an easy touchdown for Green where Elam didn’t even come close to making a play on the ball.
Reaction time in coverage isn’t Elam’s strong suit, and with larger receivers usually running toward him, once they get past him, it’s a tough task for him to catch up.
Elam and the Ravens defense managed to avoid situations like this in 2013 for the most part, but in this case, the one-on-one coverage on Green was a mismatch in Cincinnati’s favor. Credit their offense for creating a scenario where Green ran straight at Elam.
That play was possibly Elam’s worst coverage play of the season, but overall, he held his own in coverage over the course of 16 games.
Where Elam excelled when given the opportunity both on Sunday and throughout the season was in run defense.
Before the snap, Elam moves up to the line in full run defense mode.
He maintains his gap integrity by occupying the outside hole, and is patient enough to wait for the running back to come to him.
Elam shoots the gap as the ball carrier approaches, and makes the wrap-up tackle for a loss.
On another run play, the result is similar.
This time, Elam starts off lined up wide as a cornerback.
Based on Cincinnati’s offensive setup, nothing signals a run play before the snap.
Elam is able to identify the run play just as it develops.
He sheds his block and has a one-on-one opportunity on the outside.
Elam cuts low and makes the solo tackle.
Not exactly the greatest form tackling, and that’s still something he has to work on, but in this case, he still made the play.
Elam proved time and time again this season that his closing speed running forward in run defense is best suit. His awareness as a run defender is significantly better than in coverage, and he tends to make the most of his opportunities when given the green light to attack the ball carrier.
His forward speed allows him to stay back further than other safeties, which blankets the fact he may be coming up, confusing the offense.
Ultimately, no NFL safety can fully avoid one-on-one coverage situations, and the Ravens will likely have to deal with that fact for Elam’s entire career in Baltimore.
But if the Ravens can find better free safety help during the offseason to complement the high-caliber cornerback duo of Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb, then Elam should have more freedom to roam near the line more in 2014.
He played about as expected in 2013, as he was a direct clone of his former Gator self, so it seems safe to say the Ravens got what they expected to when they used a first round pick on Matt Elam.