Plug-in veterans help power Ravens defense

November 22, 2008|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,ken.murray@baltsun.com

There are no slackers on the Ravens' defense, thanks in part to veteran leadership. When safety Jim Leonhard first set foot in the locker room in April, he quickly gained an appreciation for that fact.

"You feel that right away," he said yesterday. "You know the talent and the intelligence of the players on this defense, and you can't be the guy to let them down. They don't care if you're a rookie, a free agent or a guy they just brought in. They expect you to learn the defense and understand it as well as they do."

Leonhard learned on the run as the only newcomer in a pre-draft minicamp that also served as his two-day tryout. Signed the day after the draft, Leonhard saw his job description go from special teams to starting strong safety in Week 2 when Dawan Landry suffered a season-ending neck injury.

After three seasons with the Buffalo Bills, Leonhard, a free agent in the offseason, was one of three key veteran additions the Ravens made to the secondary. Cornerbacks Fabian Washington (draft-day trade) and Frank Walker (free agent) have also played significant roles at a position depleted by injuries last season.

"When we look at how we failed last year as a football team and an organization, our lack of quality depth in the back end hurt us," general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "So, to upgrade that talent was one of the things we set out to do during the offseason."

Mission accomplished.

Leonhard has started seven games, equaling his three-year total in Buffalo. Washington, acquired for a fourth-round draft pick, has made seven starts and Walker four. Collectively, they cushioned the blow of losing cornerback Chris McAlister and Landry for the season and veteran corner Samari Rolle for six games, although Rolle has since returned.

"These guys have done a wonderful job of stepping up," Rolle said of the newcomers. "This being their first year in the defense and picking things up, it's been amazing."

The results show a bottom-line dividend. Last season, the Ravens were shredded for 27 touchdown passes, gave up 222.3 passing yards per game and ranked 20th in pass defense.

This season, they are eighth in pass defense, giving up 188.3 pass yards per game and 12 touchdown passes in 10 games.

"We knew it was going to be important," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said of the additions. "You can't go through a whole year without having some issues. George Kokinis and Ozzie, they're the best in the league. Our personnel department watches as much film as we [coaches] do, maybe more so. Those guys are really prepared."

Kokinis, the team's director of pro personnel, credits secondary coach Chuck Pagano and Ryan with the push to get Washington when the Oakland Raiders put him up for trade. Pagano coached Washington for two years in Oakland after helping to draft him in the first round in 2005.

Although Washington eventually fell out of favor there, he showed the requisite cover skills to play in the Ravens' defense and came with Pagano's approval.

"I think I can pick up any system," Washington said. "The hard part is getting comfortable with it where you just react. That took me into training camp [to do]."

Kokinis assigned Vince Newsome, his assistant pro personnel director, to evaluate Walker, a free agent after four seasons with the New York Giants and one with the Green Bay Packers. Because Walker ran well and had the ability to play in the nickel package and on special teams, Newsome determined he was another good fit.

"What has been encouraging to me is how much Frank loves to play football," Kokinis said. "He takes more reps than anybody in practice, and he's in with the coaches studying early in the week."

Then there was Leonhard, the 5-foot-8, 186-pound safety who has taken on tight ends this year as well as playing on special teams. Defensive backs coach Mark Carrier made that evaluation, and when Leonhard showed well in his tryout, the Ravens quickly offered him a contract.

"Someone that athletic and that smart we felt was a good fit," Kokinis said. "He learned that defense fast. It's a lot about chemistry, a little about talent and a lot about heart, and he has that."

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