Costly loss of nickel back could stop Ravens on dime

ON THE RAVENS

Pro Fooball

August 08, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

EVEN THOUGH cornerback Dale Carter never played for the Ravens, his absence is having a significant impact on the team. Team officials announced at the start of training camp that Carter would not play this season because of a blood clot on his lung.

And since then, the Ravens have been unable to find a nickel back for passing situations. In a season where the Ravens should have one of the league's most dominating defenses, there is still one major piece missing.

Who is the nickel back?

The situation even has defensive coordinator Mike Nolan scratching his head.

"We've decided to work Ed Reed [safety] a little bit there," said Nolan. "As for right now, that's what we've got and that's what we'll work for the next few days."

Reed will probably handle the position until the final game of the preseason, long enough for starting cornerback Gary Baxter to fully recover from an offseason hernia operation, and for Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister to end his contract dispute.

Ideally, the Ravens would like to have matched up McAlister and Carter on the two outside receivers, and Baxter would cover the inside or slot receiver. But now veteran Corey Fuller, who was victimized several times last season, has replaced Carter. Fuller, in his 10th season, hasn't been overly impressive in training camp, and he'll most likely get picked on again this season.

That's why the Ravens brought in Carter in the first place. That's why the Ravens are nervous.

The Ravens' other two options are to insert fourth-year cornerback Ray Walls as a nickel back, or go to Reed.

It's a problem. It can become a huge problem.

The Ravens seem to have everything else covered on defense. They have quick, penetrating defensive linemen in Marques Douglas and Tony Weaver. They have big, fast cornerbacks who can play press coverage in McAlister and Baxter, and pass-rushing specialists in outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Peter Boulware. They have the best linebacker in the game in Ray Lewis, and an understudy in Ed Hartwell who is not far behind Lewis in talent.

But it can be all for naught if the Ravens can't get off the field on third down because of their nickel back situation. One of the main reasons the Ravens' defense was so dominant in 2000 was because they had an effective nickel back in Robert Bailey.

"Only Corey Fuller has been a starter in the NFL. The rest of them are just competing to make the roster," said Nolan, in sizing up the rest of the cornerbacks competing for the nickel position. "We have guys who are going to have to prove themselves in preseason games."

Nolan doesn't want to move Reed on passing situations. But against Atlanta on Thursday night, Reed will most likely play the slot receiver and backup Gerome Sapp would replace him at safety.

But to move Reed will cost the Ravens some big plays. Reed plays one great center field.

"We want to get our best five players in the secondary on the field at this time," said Nolan. "It's not fair to say that this [nickel back] belongs to a corner. We got Sapp, who is competing pretty well, and we want to give him a chance to get on the field. But when you put Ed down low, you lose the turnover effect that guy has. You want to keep him deep where he can still be a ball hawk, so to speak.

"We like him down, he is one of our better players and can do it," said Nolan. "But we like the ball as well, but it's tough to get the ball down low."

The Ravens thought that maybe another cornerback would emerge and fill the role in training camp. Walls could still develop into that player, and so could Fred Weary. But thus far, no one, not even Fuller, has separated himself from the group. That's a bad sign considering that two cornerbacks on the roster, Lamont Brightful and Javin Hunter, are former receivers. There isn't much help via free agency, either.

"Right now, it's not a problem; it has given us an opportunity to look at some other guys," said Nolan. "You have to create depth and backups. It's good to work Ed down there so if we have to, he can do it."

And if Reed has to go there, the Ravens may have filled one trouble area, but created another.

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