WESTMINSTER — Tom Zbikowski barreled toward the football just as quarterback Joe Flacco was releasing it from his fingertips, rapidly gaining ground until he had positioned himself in front of the intended target: Anquan Boldin.
The free safety’s instincts took over and he crisply intercepted the pass in a red-zone drill and rumbled upfield.
It was one training camp moment, but it was also an indicator of how Zbikowski has progressed heading into his third NFL season with the Baltimore Ravens.
Competing with former Pro Bowl safety Ken Hamlin for the starting free safety job with star Ed Reed sidelined following offseason hip surgery, Zbikowski has operated with the first-string defense since the Ravens arrived at camp as well as the entire offseason.
"I don’t really care too much about the depth chart right now, but it’s awesome playing with the first defense," said Zbikowski a former third-round draft pick. "It’s just fun to play. You can really rely on every one of these guys.
"With the run game as a free safety, you’re not even thinking about that. The front seven has got it covered ahead of you. You can sit back and go for interceptions."
This year, there’s something different about the former Notre Dame standout and heavyweight boxer from Chicago.
There’s less of him.
Zbikowski has exercised and followed a strict diet to get down to roughly 200 pounds.
"I did a lot of plyometrics and boxing for conditioning," said Zbikowski, who won his lone professional boxing match by knockout at famed Madison Square Garden. "It leans you down a bit. I’ve always been fast. Now, I feel like I’ve got that extra spring in my legs. The more I condition, the better I feel."
Once listed at 5-foot-11, 210 pounds on the roster, Zbikowski is actually lighter and reported with a chiseled physique. That’s a major contrast to his rookie season when he was nearly 220 pounds and was bluntly ordered to lose some weight immediately by former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.
With the upgraded conditioning, Zbikowski is able to sprint much faster and is making more plays on the ball.
"I’m at like 200 pounds and I feel very good there," Zbikowski said. "As a rookie, I was about 215 and that was too much."
Now, it doesn’t take him as long as it did in the past to close on a wide receiver or tight end. When he arrived in Baltimore, Zbikowski was stereotyped as more of an in-the-box enforcer type who would primarily play special teams.
Zbikowski, 25, seems to be evolving, though, into a rangier centerfielder type, which is what the Ravens look for at the position since strong safety Dawan Landry is the top hit man in the secondary.
"Zibby is playing very fast," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He’s really covering ground. He looks really quick."
Signed to a one-year contract this summer after a successful minicamp tryout, Hamlin provides a lot of experience heading into his eighth season and has prototype size at 6-2, 208 pounds.
A Pro Bowl selection in 2007, Hamlin has recorded 486 career tackles, 51 pass deflections, 14 interceptions, five sacks and five forced fumbles with three fumble recoveries.
Three years ago, he registered a career-high 102 tackles and five interceptions.
As he learns the Ravens’ defensive terminology and picks up the scheme, Hamlin is beginning to make his presence felt as he vies for Reed’s job.
"The biggest thing is making sure I’ve got all the calls and checks on every defense," said Hamlin, who was cut by the Dallas Cowboys this spring after three seasons. "It’s a change for me from Dallas. I’m trying to pick that up on the run and get going. I’ve been showing my game a little bit here and there and making a few plays.
"The biggest thing is knowing how my teammates play, getting down the playbook. Once you can do that, you can go out there and play free without thinking. You can show a little more what you can do. .. This team is a winner, but we’re not going to put the ring on our fingers yet. We’ve got to work for it."
A few days ago, Hamlin intercepted backup quarterback Marc Bulger in a red-zone drill.
He’s starting to display signs of getting comfortable in a new defense.
"Ken, he’s picking up the defense very quickly," Harbaugh said. "He’s been in a lot of systems, so he’s got a base foundation of knowledge. He’s done a great job of picking up the system."
Last season, Zbikowski started a career-high four games with Reed out. He was productive, intercepting two passes and recording 29 tackles.
He drew solid reviews from the coaching staff. It had been a while since Zbikowski had gotten much recognition.
Memories about college glory fade quickly, but Zbikowski was a two-time captain for the Fighting Irish.
He set the school’s defensive back record with 300 tackles to go with eight interceptions. He scored seven touchdowns: three on punt returns, two on interceptions and another two scores on fumble recoveries.
That was college, though. In the NFL, Zbikowski still has to prove himself.
With Reed out, Zbikowski knows that people around the NFL will underrate him and possibly test him out.
"Yeah, they do sleep on me, but I’ve allowed them to," Zbikowski said. "I’ve been what I consider to be fat and out of shape before. Not really, but now I’m where I need to be. That’s the process of being a professional. I think I’ve matured a little and adjusted all my weaknesses and am making them my strengths.
"I’m coming to play. I can make plays and be big part of a playmaking defense. I definitely want to fill in and show what I can do."