Ravens' secondary disconnected

October 09, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

WHEN THE RAVENS signed cornerback Deion Sanders in early September, the entire organization was tickled because the defense was complete.

"Where are teams going to throw the ball?" said cornerback Gary Baxter in a moment of bravado.

Nearly a month later, it's time for another question: Where haven't they thrown the ball?

Opposing quarterbacks are calling out the Ravens as if they were were appearing on The Price is Right. Hey, Chris McAlister, come on down. Hey, Ed Reed, come on down. Will Demps and Gary Baxter, come on down.

The only player that hasn't been toasted lately is Sanders, who has participated in only 25 plays and missed the past two games because of a hamstring injury. "Prime Time" has become No Time.

"I was disappointed last week because we couldn't get off the field on third down," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "But we had some guys who missed training camp, and they now have four games under their belts. It's time to get better, there are no more excuses."

Agreed.

A year ago, Baxter and McAlister may have been the NFL's best cornerback tandem.

McAlister and Reed made the AFC Pro Bowl squad. Sanders was regarded as one of the best cover guys ever.

But the Ravens have the 20th-ranked pass defense, allowing 228.2 yards. Kansas City, which converted on eight of 16 third-down situations, threw for 220 yards Monday night, and the Cincinnati Bengals had 289 the week before.

What has gone wrong?

"Communication is the biggest key," said Demps, a safety.

"You might have it on one play, and not on another. You have to be consistent, and it takes time."

But it's more than communication. Some players need to become selfless instead of selfish.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan might have to re-evaluate some recent changes, and most of all, the Ravens miss former secondary coach Donnie Henderson, who became the New York Jets' defensive coordinator in the offseason.

No offense to current Ravens secondary coach Johnnie Lynn, but Henderson had a style that was part tough guy, teacher and friend. He had the vocabulary of a sailor, but the response was usually positive.

This secondary needs discipline. If Henderson were coach, Reed wouldn't have been out of position so much in the first two games. After turning in that stinker against Kansas City in which he obviously didn't take the Chiefs' receivers seriously, Henderson would have been in McAlister's face this week.

Until that point, McAlister had played well this season.

Against the Chiefs, both he and Baxter were always a step behind the offense because of Kansas City's successful running game.

"Against Kansas City, we were struggling on the front end and the back end, and one freed up the other," Nolan said. "As we tried to compensate and help, it hurt. On some of those short passes, there were times the safeties could have jumped it but couldn't because the corners thought it was run, and they [cornerbacks] decided to go stop the run because it had been hurting us."

Again, it's a discipline issue.

At times this season, the Ravens look confused. Demps couldn't have found Kansas City tight end Jason Dunn with a road map on a 3-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter.

In the season-opening loss to the Cleveland Browns, two big pass plays were the difference.

Nolan has made some changes from a year ago, ones that Henderson probably wouldn't have agreed to.

"In the Cleveland game, there were two big plays, so you can target those," Nolan said.

"But the other night, there were more problems. It's certainly not a panic situation, but something we take seriously. As players and coaches, we have to put a stronger effort together and stay focused. We'll take care of it."

Sanders is expected to play tomorrow against Washington, which is searching for an offensive identity. The Redskins have key players who don't fit coach Joe Gibbs' mold, but are dangerous. Clinton Portis is a good, slashing-type runner, but not the big, in-between-the-tackle type like a John Riggins or an Earnest Byner.

With the exception of Joe Theismann, Gibbs liked the big, strong-arm, drop-back quarterbacks such as Doug Williams and Mark Rypien, but now has the more mobile Mark Brunell.

There has been one constant. The Redskins, with the league's 16th-ranked passing offense, like to go vertical with receivers Rod Gardner and Laveranues Coles.

The Ravens can counter with two big corners in McAlister and Baxter, who a year ago would physically handle receivers down the field. They can finesse Coles with Sanders, if he plays.

The tools are there, and this could be an excellent group. But they need to get more veteran leadership, and regain that edge.

"A lot of guys aren't talking this week, just trying to hone in on things," Baxter said. "I think guys are focused. It's all about chemistry. We know as a unit what we have to do. We're professionals, We have to step it up."

It's about time.

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