Cover story still mystery Ravens: Veteran cornerback Ron Woodson is expected to provide leadership for a developing secondary that still has variety of question marks.

August 02, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

The Ravens hired cornerback Rod Woodson to bring savvy and stability to the team's most fragile area, and he has mulled over the list of question marks.

Will veteran strong safety Stevon Moore's knees hold up? Can safety Rondell Jones bounce back after a year spent largely in the training room? Is DeRon Jenkins, the fourth player assigned to the right cornerback spot in two seasons, equipped to keep the job? Is second-year safety Kim Herring ready to become a starter? Will backup safety Ralph Staten shed his undisciplined ways and play dependably in pass coverage? How long before rookie cornerback Duane Starks emerges as a candidate to unseat Jenkins?

The Ravens have changed the face of their offense by revamping their backfield with newcomers like quarterback Jim Harbaugh, fullback Roosevelt Potts and tailback Errict Rhett. Can the defensive backfield alter its leaky image, with Woodson leading the makeover?

"It's early in camp, but the secondary really has a long way to go," Woodson said. "We've got some good young talent, and we've also got to refine a lot of things. We have a lot of work to do.

"All of the intangibles have to come together," he added. "Everybody has to fill a role on the whole defense, trust the next guy, fit the defense like a glove. Then the ball starts rolling, and your confidence rises and you start making plays. That's the point we need to get to [as a secondary]."

The grading process gets more serious in the coming weeks, beginning with Saturday's preseason opener against visiting Chicago.

The early training camp reviews aren't exactly glowing. Sure, players like Herring and Jenkins are showing improvement. Granted, Moore, with nine years of experience behind him, is moving forward in his recovery. But that hasn't prevented the group from giving up a handful of pass completions for long gains or scores in virtually every practice.

If the Ravens expect to move from mediocre to playoff contender, they must reduce the number of big plays allowed. Remember, even with a vastly improved pass rush and run defense, even with the new life they received from Herring, Staten and Jenkins last year, their pass defense still ranked 28th in the NFL. They still saw opponents complete 59.7 percent of their passes. They still surrendered 20 touchdown passes.

"Everybody knows [the burden] is on us. Of course, you guys mention it over and over and over," Herring said. "It's not like our pass defense was so bad that teams did whatever they wanted and completed passes on us all day. It was the big play that killed us."

The Ravens are counting on the combination of young legs and old hands to reverse that trend. They want to blitz the quarterback more and rely increasingly on man-to-man coverage. And it all starts with Woodson, the future Hall of Famer who gives the secondary a dimension it has lacked in two previous seasons.

Woodson is envisioned as a tone-setting weapon. The guy who can cover the opponent's top receiver outside, match up with a slot receiver inside, and blitz the quarterback effectively from any angle.

He is also the hired general. Judging by the way he -- along with Moore -- directs traffic on the practice field and talks to the young defensive backs on the sideline, Woodson is embracing his role.

"We have a guy [Woodson] who can communicate with these guys on the field, and can make a big play at any time," defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. "Rod is doing a great job. I've already seen our offense tinker with more [receiver] routes because of him than I've ever seen in my life."

Settling the other cornerback spot also is a major concern for Lewis, who has watched people like Isaac Booth, Donny Brady and Eugene Daniel occupy it over the past two seasons. Although Jenkins seems more comfortable as a first-stringer by the day, he has yet to prove he can anchor the position. In addition, Jenkins' main competition, Starks, falls further behind on the learning curve as his training camp holdout continues.

"Cornerback is a very critical position. It's seven points in a hurry if you don't know what you're doing," Lewis said. "Duane is so far behind, I don't see how he can compete [for a starting job] right now. DeRon is putting good practices together. Now he has to take the next step."

While Lewis is counting on Moore to equal his solid 1997 season -- during which he played on two sore, now surgically repaired knees -- he needs a breakout year from Herring, who has taken over for banged-up Rondell Jones at free safety.

Herring's speed should allow him to offer good run support and to match up well in man-to-man coverage on slot receivers, thus freeing Woodson to do more damage as a pass rusher. Herring's ability to rotate in the deep middle could shore up the secondary's big-play worries.

The other wild card in the secondary is the continued development of backups like Staten and cornerback John Williams. Staten, who dished out some intimidating hits on opposing running backs and receivers late last year, still hasn't shown enough consistency in pass coverage. Williams, one of the team's faster players and a non-stop hustler on special teams, still has raw cover ability.

"I'm anxious to see the whole group play, but the thing that's been exciting so far is DeRon and Herring and Staten have been putting together back-to-back good plays and good practices," Lewis said.

"The next challenge are these preseason games. Can they play lights out for the next four weeks? This is the challenge they wanted. Now, they have the opportunity."

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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