The Baltimore Ravens didn’t occupy the headlines with a Friday afternoon signing, but they made one that addressed a much-needed hole on the roster.
Baltimore and veteran safety Darian Stewart agreed to a one-year deal, adding depth to the thinnest positional group on the roster.
After signing veteran Jeromy Miles to a one-year deal (a player used almost exclusively on special teams) earlier in free agency, the Ravens still had a glaring void at safety, as there was no inherent backup-caliber player on the roster at either strong or free safety.
It appears that Stewart is the man to fill that void.
Coming from the St. Louis Rams, Stewart is an obvious Steve Spagnuolo (Baltimore’s new secondary coach) product, who worked with “Spags” in St. Louis.
In Spagnuolo’s final season with the Rams (2011), Stewart saw the most extensive playing time of his four-year career, accumulating a career-high 920 defensive snaps as the team’s starting free safety.
After Spagnulo’s departure, Stewart’s playing time dipped, further fueling the notion that he may have been a favorite of the Baltimore assistant.
During the 2012 season, Stewart managed just 82 snaps before reasserting himself as a regular in St. Louis’ defense last season, playing 583 snaps, primarily as a box safety, much different than his role in 2011.
So how does he fit in Baltimore?
Baltimore desperately needed experienced depth at both safety positions, and Stewart helps fill that role. He doesn’t figure to factor into the starting free safety plans, however this time last year, it was foreign to think James Ihedigbo would be the team’s full-time strong safety in 2013.
Right now, best-case scenario, Stewart’s background at both safety positions makes him a viable first backup at each of the safety spots.
In coverage, Stewart’s 2013 season didn’t offer much to dissect. He was essentially a linebacker in St. Louis’ defense on most occasions, fulfilling the in-the-box strong safety role to a T.
Stewart’s role was similar to what Matt Elam’s role ideally will be in the future, so adding a similar player in Stewart helps keep the depth at safety uniform in Baltimore.
Up in the front seven, Stewart’s ability to read and react to plays was his best asset, and his closing speed allowed him to make an impact.
Against the Seattle Seahawks, he was used in the box for almost the entire the game.
As a spy on Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, Stewart’s discipline allowed him to contain the passer.
His ability to follow Wilson’s eyes without fully reacting until necessary allowed him to stay put when Wilson progressed through his reads on the left side.
Staying in place gave Stewart an ideal angle on Wilson when he was forced out of the pocket.
Stewart’s closing speed awarded him the ability to make a play on Wilson, forcing a throwaway and incompletion.
Playing up near the line, safeties in such roles need to be able to successfully react to a tight end’s (or slot receiver’s on some occasions) route, and have the speed to match with the bigger pass catchers step-for-step.
Stewart’s ability to do so was on display in the same game.
With the edge rusher going after the passer, Stewart is left alone with the tight end, and he reacts to the play just as the tight end breaks off the line.
Stewart already has himself positioned in front of the tight end before he is even five yards downfield.
He’s able to run with the tight end stride for stride throughout the play, taking him away as one of Wilson’s options.
While he was primarily a free safety during the Spagnuolo days in St. Louis, Stewart showed last season that he has the ideal qualities of a reliable box safety.
His experience gives him the ability to compete to be the primary backup at both positions, but ideally he can be what Ihedigbo was for the Ravens in 2012 – a backup strong safety who gave his team almost 300 (295) quality snaps.
Ihedigbo was used exclusively at strong safety, but Stewart’s snaps could come at both positions.
Stewart’s addition shouldn’t drastically change any offseason plans at the safety position, particularly regarding the draft.
However, it is much more reassuring knowing the Ravens now have quality depth at the safety position, something that was severely lacking prior to Friday’s signing.