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Harbaugh looking for members of Ravens secondary to step up

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Luke Jones
Luke Jones
Luke Jones is the Ravens and Orioles beat reporter for WNST BaltimorePositive.com and is a PFWA member. His mind is consumed with useless sports knowledge, pro wrestler promos, and movie quotes, but he struggles to remember where he put his phone. Luke's favorite sports memories include being one of the thousands of kids who waited to get Cal Ripken's autograph after Orioles games in the summer of 1995, attending the Super Bowl XXXV victory parade with his father in the pouring rain, and watching the Terps advance to the Final Four at the Carrier Dome in 2002. Follow him on Twitter @BaltimoreLuke or email him at Luke@wnst.net.

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — There was plenty of blame to go around on both sides of the ball in the Ravens’ forgettable 43-23 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night.
Turnovers, penalties, poor pass protection, and the lack of a consistent pass rush all contributed to the humbling defeat, but it was the play in the secondary that conjured memories of the likes of Corey Ivy, David Pittman, Ronnie Prude, Derrick Martin, and the Ravens’ nightmarish Monday night defeat in Pittsburgh in 2007 in which Ben Roethlisberger threw five touchdown passes in the first half of a 38-7 final. It’s no surprise that the absence of top cornerback Jimmy Smith hurt what’s already been a vulnerable secondary in 2014, but allowing six touchdown passes to Roethlisberger and the Steelers signaled a complete collapse in the back end not seen against Pittsburgh in the John Harbaugh era.
The head coach discussed the secondary’s struggles on Monday after defensive coordinator Dean Pees used seven different players at cornerback and safety against Pittsburgh, but they’re finding no answers at the moment as they shuffle options on and off the field. Perhaps the best example of how uncertain the Ravens are with the state of the defensive backfield was the decision to deactivate rookie safety Terrence Brooks against the Steelers after he appeared to be on the verge of securing a starting job in playing 67 percent of the team’s snaps against Atlanta only two weeks ago.
“When some player expresses himself as being the best player by how he plays, he’ll be out there permanently,” said Harbaugh about the secondary rotation. “Until that happens, nobody’s given anything. I think guys have played OK at times, well at other times, and there have been a few bad plays back there.”
Though there have been far more than a few bad plays in the secondary, Harbaugh wasn’t far off in saying the secondary had held up enough when Smith was still in the fold — the Ravens had allowed only seven touchdown passes in their first eight games — even though they’d had their fair share of lapses and had surrendered plenty of yards. But the “bend, but don’t break” philosophy officially shattered at Heinz Field.
Veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb hasn’t been the same — quarterbacks have posted a 105.0 passer rating against him this season, according to Pro Football Focus — since coming back from the back injury that cost him the entire summer and the first few weeks of the regular season. Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown simply aren’t good enough to play meaningful defensive snaps, and the Ravens originally agreed as Franks was on the free-agent market a month ago and Brown was relegated to the inactive list due to his immense struggles that started in training camp.
The play at safety hasn’t been any better as the Ravens now rank 26th in the NFL in pass defense. The Baltimore defense has faced the third-most pass attempts in the league while ranking 22nd in the NFL with only five interceptions. To make matters worse, only one of those picks has been secured by a defensive back — defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and linebacker C.J. Mosley each have two — when Smith intercepted a pass from Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon in Week 6.
Many aspects of Sunday’s game were ugly, but unlike other areas in which the Ravens have players with proven track records where you can expect improvement, there doesn’t appear to be much they can do in the secondary beyond hoping that Smith is ready to return after the Week 11 bye with upcoming games against New Orleans and San Diego. And the disappearance of the pass rush following a sequence in which they sacked Roethlisberger on three straight plays in the second quarter did the pass defense no favors as the game progressed.
It’s become painfully clear that the Ravens need more from their front seven if their secondary is to survive against any formidable passing attacks over the final two months of the season.
“We’re not disciplined back there in technique like we need to be,” said Harbaugh, who spent 2007 as the Philadelphia Eagles defensive backs coach before becoming the head man in Baltimore a year later. “Our eyes aren’t in the right spot all the time like they need to be. When you’re in the back end – just like on the offensive line – your footwork’s got to be right, your eyes have to be right, your leverage has to be right, and then you’ve got to play the ball well.”
There’s only so much coaching you can do when you don’t have the proper talent.
To no surprise, Harbaugh indicated that the Ravens had several busts in coverage as well as plays in which defensive backs were beaten physically. And even when defenders were in position to make a stop, they often misplayed the ball or missed tackles. Particularly at the safety spot where the Ravens used Will Hill, Darian Stewart, Jeromy Miles, and Matt Elam at different times on Sunday night, one could argue the lack of continuity has hurt performance, but the head coach downplayed that being an issue.
Without throwing his secondary under the bus entirely, Harbaugh didn’t shy away from the need for someone — anyone — to start making plays in pass defense. It’s clear the Ravens have plenty of areas to improve following their humbling loss to the Steelers, but you wonder if the secondary is something that they’re going to be able to fix this year.
“We’re looking for the right combination, but I think that’s a little overrated,” Harbaugh said. “I think it’s the best players. If you want to play in that secondary, step up in practice and play well and step up in the game and makes plays and be in the right spot. That’s what we’re looking for guys to do.”
The Ravens can keep looking, but it’s becoming more and more apparent that they’re not going to like what they see.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Watching Lardarius Webb this past Sunday and it is obvious his better days are behind him as a DB. Perhaps the Ravens ought to think of moving him to a safety spot next year assuming we can find a competent DB in the draft or free agency. I really think Ozzie has dropped the ball in recent drafts by not drafting young DBs and WRs early in the draft. This past draft was supposed to be oine of the best drafts in years for wide receivers yet he doesn’t grab one. Pittsburgh in turn grabs the kid Bryant out of Clemson in the 4th round and he seems to be following in the footsteps of Mike Wallace, Emanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Ozzie’s insistence on drafting linebackers and defensive lineman in back to back drafts while ignoring the cornerback position has really hurt this team. In today’s NFL you have to be able to stop the pass if you want to be successful. Ravens have one of the best defenses against the run but are a sieve against the pass. That has gotten them a 5-4 record after 9 weeks.
    (L.J. — Not adding another viable cornerback was the biggest failure of the offseason. Didn’t think it was wise to expect one of Chykie Brown or Asa Jackson to be the No. 3 corner anyway, but the injuries at the position have made it a full-blown crisis.)

  2. Lardarius ( I left my shoes at Heinz field & I’m not too good anymore ) Webb. Forget moving him next year to safety, how about off the team !!! The DB’s & safeties can’t tackle & look lost. Without improvements in the secondary, it’s looking like a so so rest of the year, what a shame !!!
    (L.J. — Webb’s $12 million cap figure in 2015 makes it quite possible he’s not back next season unless they do something to address his contract. He’ll need to step up his play for the Ravens to even want to entertain the latter.)

  3. Next time Harbaugh runs a player out that is still performing at a high level (a la Bernard Pollard) he better make sure he has an adequate replacement. In all honesty I think the safeties have been a bigger problem than the DBs. Stewart, Elam et. al look completely lost in coverage. That 53 yard pass to Sanu in Cincy 2 weeks ago was all on the safety position. That loss is the one that is going to haunt them in the end. The problem is the secondary will not be fixed until next year. As for the playoffs, even if we somehow make it, can you see what Brady, Manning, Luck and Rothelisberger will do to them.
    (L.J. — Agree on your overall point about the safeties, but I wouldn’t use Bernard Pollard as my example. He was pretty terrible in coverage — check out the Super Bowl if you don’t remember. I actually thought Ihedigbo was a better player than him.)

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