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Washington, Leonhard might be key to banged-up secondary

August 27, 2008|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,ken.murray@baltsun.com

Jim Leonhard wanted the chance to play in Rex Ryan's defensive system. Fabian Washington wanted the chance to play anywhere other than Oakland.

Together, they are starting over in the Ravens' secondary, perhaps just in the nick of time.

In a daily battle against attrition this summer, Ryan, the Ravens' defensive coordinator, has yet to put his projected starting secondary on the field because of injuries. With the season opener just 11 days away, Leonhard and Washington could become key figures in any potential makeover.

Leonhard spent three seasons with the Buffalo Bills as a solid special teams player and reserve safety who figured to fill the same role here. But when Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed showed up at camp with a shoulder injury, Leonhard's role kept growing.

Unless Reed makes a miraculous recovery before Sept. 7, it's likely Leonhard will start at free safety.

Washington won't play in the opener against the Cincinnati Bengals under any circumstance - he is suspended one game for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy - but he was acquired in a draft-day trade with the Raiders to upgrade the team at cornerback.

A first-round draft pick in 2005 by the Raiders, Washington might not play in the team's final preseason game tomorrow night at home against the Atlanta Falcons because of a hamstring issue.

His injury complicates a muddled secondary picture that, in addition to Reed, has included cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle being sidelined by knee injuries. Rolle played last week in St. Louis, but McAlister probably won't play before the opener.

"You coach who's out there and you get those guys ready," Ryan said yesterday of his summer of intrigue.

The Ravens got reinforcements in the offseason by signing free agents Leonhard and cornerback Frank Walker, trading for Washington and drafting safeties Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura. Leonhard was attracted by coach John Harbaugh's background in special teams and Ryan's zone-blitz schemes. Little did he know he would spend as much time in zone blitzes as punt coverage.

"I've gotten a lot of reps, and they've been rolling a lot of people in with the first team, even linebackers," Leonhard said. "A lot of teams don't do that. That's a credit to the coaches."

Leonhard is even more impressed by the freedom Ryan gives his players and the opportunities they have to make plays.

"They allow you to play football here," he said. "I've never been in a system like this, where the coaches put it on the players. You need special players to do that. There's a lot of trust there ... [and] it makes you very accountable."

Leonhard has made the most of his opportunity. He is second on the team with 10 solo tackles in the preseason and is tied with Nakamura (three apiece) for special teams tackles.

Washington made two interceptions against the New England Patriots and has played well overall. He had fallen into disfavor in Oakland and lost his starting job a year ago before asking for a trade. Washington acknowledges that he got complacent in his third season with the Raiders.

"I felt I needed a fresh start, and some people might say I wore out my welcome," Washington said. "I still remember when I got the call from Oz [Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome] on draft day, I said I'm in a good place for my career to blossom."

In Oakland, he played under Ryan's brother Rob, the Raiders' defensive coordinator. What did Rob tell Rex?

"That he has great cover skills, that he likes to play," Rex Ryan said. "He's a better tackler than what we heard, much better. He's got top-end speed, great quickness, change of direction and good hands."

At the very least, Washington will play nickel back. He came to camp with the idea of challenging Rolle for the starting job but could end up replacing McAlister, who had offseason knee surgery.

"I can't worry if I'm going to start," Washington said. "I feel my play will do all the talking for that. If I'm playing well, that will warrant more playing time."

Still, the Ravens haven't played well in the secondary so far. They have given up 202 passing yards per game, and opponents have converted 25 of 50 third-down plays, ghastly figures.

"We've definitely got some execution things to correct," Leonhard said. "[But] we're not far off. The third downs are something that has to get fixed, and we've put a lot of thought into it."

Next: Ravens vs. Falcons, tomorrow, 7 p.m.

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