Ravens like ingredients, but recipe has to season

Secondary has talent, but remains unproven

August 03, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

The chemistry experiment known as the Ravens' secondary is now in its laboratory phase.

Will the result be yet another explosion, or will the defensive backfield cease being a danger zone?

From head coach Brian Billick to defensive backs coach Steve Shafer to veteran Rod Woodson, the consensus is that for the Ravens to reverse three losing seasons, they must solidify the back end of a defense that already is strong up front.

The Ravens face a daunting challenge. They love the young, raw talent that graces their secondary, beginning with second-year cornerback Duane Starks and rookie cornerback Chris McAlister. Those two could form the youngest starting duo in the league if McAlister unseats incumbent DeRon Jenkins.

But more growing pains likely await the Ravens. They have turned over the strong-safety job to third-year man Kim Herring, who has started just 11 games since he was drafted in the second round in 1997. And their free safety is Woodson, a future Hall of Famer who has not played safety since his mid-1980s days at Purdue.

"There is something new that they are each being tested at every day," Shafer said. "With each practice, I'm seeing everybody getting a little more comfortable. The communication is getting a little better. We're getting a little better each day with our technique.

"Are we anywhere near where we have to be? No. But I like the progress I'm seeing."

The defense made significant progress in 1998, holding eight opponents under 17 points and producing Pro Bowlers such as end Michael McCrary and linebackers Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware. But, partly due to an inept offense that kept them on the field too long and partly due to a secondary that failed to prevent big plays, the defense ended the season ranked 22nd. The Ravens ranked 24th against the pass.

The adjustments start with Woodson, who is switching roles for the first time in his 13-year career. On the corner, players gamble more while performing essentially on an island. At safety, Woodson must become more of a traffic cop, directing the secondary and offering more run support while making calls with a larger slice of the field as his responsibility.

Woodson sees the whole experiment working out nicely. In time.

"You need to find a good blend of people, and I think [the Ravens] are doing that now," Woodson said. "This is still a feeling-out situation. We're going to find out how good [the young cornerbacks] are once games start. You know people are going to come after the young guys."

Where the Ravens were once woefully inadequate at cornerback -- remember the weekly toastings of Antonio Langham and Issac Booth in 1996? -- they think the position is in capable hands with Starks, Jenkins and McAlister. They are probably right.

Jenkins, a second-round pick in 1996, finally made tangible strides last year and is off to a strong start in training camp. Starks, a first-round pick from a year ago, is coming off a typically up-and-down rookie season. He started strong in 1998, picking off a pass and forcing a fumble in the season opener. After beating out Jenkins at midseason, he faded late, as opponents went after him repeatedly.

Starks, whose impressive speed has been on display through the first week in camp, admitted fatigue and overconfidence got the best of him in 1998. He gave up a handful of touchdowns in the season's final six weeks.

"When I come to work every day, what I think about first is being more consistent, not being good one play and mediocre the next," Starks said. "Even if the ball isn't coming my way, don't get complacent. I don't think that will happen this year."

By adding McAlister to the mix, all 6 feet 1, 206 pounds of him, the Ravens expect opponents to test his inexperience until the rookie forces them into another plan. But the Ravens also look at what compelled them to draft him in the first round -- excellent recovery speed, unusual size, his physical style -- and they see McAlister shoring up a sore spot. Sooner than later.

"I like Chris' speed, and I really like his size," said Woodson, who vacated his position for McAlister. "When you find someone that big at corner, that's something special."

"Even Rod Woodson has some things he has to experience [at safety] before they are really going to be comfortable as a group," Billick said. "With the athletic ability we have outside and with where Rod is in his career right now, he should be able to pull things together back there.

"What we have to guard against is giving up the big play. We've got the athletic ability to get done what we need to get done."

Ravens camp

When: Through Aug. 26

Where: Western Maryland College, Westminster

Directions from Baltimore: Take Interstate-695 to Exit 19 to I-795 north to its end. Follow signs to Westminster via Route 140 west to Route 31 south. At blinking yellow light, turn left (Route 31). At first traffic light, turn left on Main Street. Proceed up the hill. The parking entrance is on the left.

Information: 410-261-FANS

Pub Date: 8/03/99

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