Secondary is primary target again Woodson helps fill hole, but health, inexperience dog last line of defense

Defensive backs

September 04, 1998|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

In the Ravens' first two seasons, no group was more maligned than the secondary, and that might not change in 1998. The microscope will again be focused on the cornerbacks and safeties.

"We definitely think we have something to prove," said reserve strong safety Ralph Staten, who will double as a linebacker in passing situations. "We're going to make mistakes, but if we fly ++ around back there and have some fun, we can cover some things up.

"Last year we didn't have a winning season and we're going to have to play well back there if we want to change."

Let's flash back to 1996. The Ravens had the worst pass defense in the NFL, allowing 248.1 passing yards a game. Fast forward to 1997. The Ravens were ranked No. 28, allowing 229.6.

Has there been much of a change?

The secondary was not tested much in the preseason because the pass rush from the zone-blitzing scheme was suffocating. But teams will counter in the regular season with maximum protection (seven to eight blockers), forcing the secondary to match up one-on-one for longer periods of time.

"We have to be consistent back there," said defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "We have to have a short memory and continue to work hard. We have to execute our coverages and keep playing together. We can't let big plays affect us one way or another."

The Ravens signed five-time All-Pro Rod Woodson during the off-season to cut down on some of the big plays, and he's versatile enough to do it. He'll start at left cornerback in the regular defense but cover the slot receiver on passing downs. He is also physical enough to blitz and outrun or overpower running backs.

But, most importantly to the Ravens, he should bring stability.

"Rod has a calmness and the ability to make plays," Lewis said. "He reinforces certain things to other guys and then demonstrates on the field how to make the big plays. That's a good thing."

But entering his 12th season, Woodson's health is just one of several questions facing the Ravens. Strong safety Stevon Moore, a 10-year veteran, had major surgery on both knees during the off-season and missed all four preseason games with a shoulder injury.

Free safety Kim Herring is just entering his second year and there are questions about right cornerback DeRon Jenkins, in his third season, being a bona fide starter in the league. Jenkins, though, played well in the preseason, spurred on by the Ravens' drafting of Miami cornerback Duane Starks in the first round last April.

Starks held out for nearly two weeks of training camp and is still a little behind the rest of the players. But he has shown a lot of natural ability, especially being able to cover man-to-man. Starks will be the nickel back.

"We now know what to expect from the players, their limitations, and positives," Lewis said. "That's big. And they're used to playing together. Even the second unit, for the most part. If we'd been forced to play a game our second day of training camp, we could have. That couldn't have happened a year ago. What we're working on are the little things that, hopefully, will get us closer to winning, not just staying in games."

Scouting report

Strengths: The secondary has a mixture of youth and veterans. It is an aggressive bunch, at times willing to gamble.

Weaknesses: Rod Woodson and Stevon Moore are suspect health-wise, and the team doesn't have a proven right cornerback.

Skinny: The Ravens need a strong pass rush to compensate for a group that is average at best.

Preseason grade: C. The good news for the Ravens is that this group isn't close to reaching its peak yet.

Pub Date: 9/04/98

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