Blame is deflected in Ravens' secondary

Coaches say Reed, Demps didn't miss assignments

Pro Football

September 15, 2004|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Ravens defensive coaches will stress a litany of things to be wary of heading into Sunday's home opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers and their trio of dangerous receivers. Unity, though, will not have to be one of them.

There were opportunities for defensive players to point fingers at teammates for communication breakdowns that led to a couple of back-breaking plays in the Ravens' 20-3 loss to the Cleveland Browns, but mouths were kept shut.

Instead, safeties Ed Reed and Will Demps took on the brunt of criticism from observers who watched Reed jump a slant route on a 46-yard touchdown reception by Quincy Morgan and saw Demps desperately in pursuit after a 51-yard reception by Andre' Davis.

In fact, coaches said neither player did anything wrong on the respective plays.

The problems came more from a secondary that was making its initial appearance as a total unit. Nickel back Deion Sanders got his first playing time as a Raven, cornerback Chris McAlister had skipped most of the preseason because of a contract dispute, and cornerback Gary Baxter had sat out a number of practices recovering from hernia surgery.

By and large, players and coaches said the communication was good, but on those two plays, the inexperience of playing together showed.

"There were some communication errors made that you hope do not occur later on," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "There were a couple of instances where they probably tried to do too much."

The Ravens are confident the secondary will jell. But as for the past, Reed got blamed for trying to make a big play by jumping a slant route intended for Morgan, who then cut upfield behind Reed as Browns quarterback Jeff Garcia scrambled for time in the pocket.

While Reed was in the area he was supposed to be, Garcia lofted the ball to a wide-open Morgan, who should have been picked up deep by Baxter, who bit on a pump fake to the running back in the flat. Once Baxter came up, nobody stood in the way of Morgan and the end zone, and Cleveland took a 10-3 lead late in the third quarter.

"I just think we pressed the issue a little bit, and it backfired as it normally does," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said.

"Guys were starving for a play. You have to control that, though, and it's tough to control when you are used to making a lot of plays."

Two plays before the touchdown, Cleveland planted the seed for its longest gain. Garcia hit tight end Kellen Winslow, who found a hole between dime back Chad Williams and Reed, across the middle of the field for 21 yards, converting a third-and-10.

The Browns ran the same play in the fourth quarter, but Reed had Winslow covered, and Garcia looked to the other side of the field. Davis, lined up inside of Dennis Northcutt, ran straight downfield while Northcutt ran a short hitch pattern.

Sanders, who should have played the deep third on that side, came up on Northcutt - presumably assuming Reed would be behind him - leaving Davis wide-open for the long gain. Demps, whose responsibility was elsewhere, came over to make the tackle, looking guilty in the process.

"Aside from those errors, the defense had a great day," Billick said. "The next step is for that group to communicate better and not leave themselves vulnerable by not knowing where everyone else was on the field."

It was the only misstep for Sanders, who played roughly 15 snaps and looked much like he did during his heyday (no passes were thrown his way). Sanders had not played since December 2000, when he was with the Washington Redskins.

"When he had to cover a guy, he was on the guy," secondary coach Johnnie Lynn said. "It's not like he was trailing or a guy had steps on him."

Said Sanders after the game: "I felt wonderful. I am just trying to get back in the groove, trying to make something happen."

Sanders' play, along with the mistakes being mental instead of physical, gives the Ravens optimism that this secondary can still be something special. The receptions were the only ones of the day for Morgan and Davis.

"The bad things that happen, I don't think we will see those again," Lynn said.

NOTE: Defensive end Tony Weaver participated in a voter registration kickoff at the Inner Harbor yesterday.

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