The Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2012, but it wasn’t due to the play of the secondary.
Aging faster than desired, Baltimore’s safety duo of Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed didn’t help much as cover guys and Lardarius Webb’s ACL injury made the cornerback depth sparse throughout the now legendary playoff run.
After winning in spite of a poor secondary, the Ravens made it clear during the 2013 offseason that they were going to rebuild the unit. That started with the selection of strong safety Matt Elam, who experienced plenty of playing time as a rookie, mainly at free safety.
Cornerback Jimmy Smith (finally) displayed his true potential in 2013, and his play gave signs of a future shutdown corner that the Ravens may have at their disposal.
Webb looked strong during the second half of 2013 once he worked through the scar tissue of his second ACL tear. The Smith-Webb duo is among the top (if not THE top) cornerback tandems in the NFL.
Throw in rookie Terrence Brooks and the Ravens have the makings of a young secondary that should perform well this season and several years ahead.
Notable new additions: Terrence Brooks, Darian Stewart, Aaron Ross – Someone with a very realistic chance of being the starting free safety by Week 1, Brooks is a player with loads of potential, and one who will be a mainstay long term in the defense. He brings the coverage ability neither Ravens safety (Elam, James Ihedigbo) supplied last season and should pair up well with Elam.
Stewart, however, is only in Baltimore on a one-year deal, and will have to battle it out with Brooks for playing time, as Elam should have almost all playing time at strong safety locked up. A versatile defender who has a history with secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo, Stewart should fit in well as the first backup at each safety position at least.
Ross, a contender for the nickel corner job to accompany Webb and Smith, suffered a season-ending back injury last season, but when healthy early in the season, played quite well.
What he displayed in 2013 and in previous years is much more than any cornerback on the roster not named Webb or Smith has done, and if healthy, expect Ross to make the team and see the field this season.
Player with the most to prove: Asa Jackson – Once considered a contender for the nickel corner role, the arrival of Ross and Dominique Franks have presented Jackson with competitors who have plenty of NFL experience, something Jackson has none of.
Through two seasons, Jackson has barely touched the field on defense. His past history with suspensions doesn’t help his cause, either.
It’s a make-or-break camp for Jackson, a player who during the offseason went from battling little competition for a large role to fighting for a roster spot.
Player to follow: Matt Elam – Thrown into the fire Week 1 as a rookie and never looking back, Elam braced the less than ideal conditions of spending most of his first year at free safety, a position the Ravens didn’t ideally draft him to play.
He stood out sometimes in run defense, but never in coverage, which was expected given his play in college.
Now with options at free safety, Elam should easily shift back to strong safety. If the Ravens can mask his coverage deficiencies and enhance his run-stopping ability with more near-the-line looks, Elam should take the next step forward in 2014.
As one of the staples of Baltimore’s secondary, Elam’s growth in his second year is a story line to track during the preseason.