Shutdown Corner Open For Debate

August 07, 2009|By MIKE PRESTON

When you look at the Ravens' defense, it's hard to find a weakness. The unit has a Pro Bowl player on the defensive line and a couple at linebacker and in the secondary. The Ravens might have as much overall defensive depth as they had in 2000 when they won the Super Bowl.

But there is one problem area. The Ravens don't have a shutdown cornerback. They have solid players and good depth, but they don't have that big, physical corner who can take out the other team's No. 1 receiver.

Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison wants to find one before the Kansas City Chiefs come to Baltimore for the season opener Sept. 13.

"As we get closer to games, [secondary coach] Chuck Pagano does such a great job with those guys that he knows which guy is the best of all of them," Mattison said. "We're not to that point now because they all are doing well at times, but it's just a matter of consistency."

You don't need a shutdown cornerback to have a great defense, or even an effective one. The Pittsburgh Steelers, the defending Super Bowl champions, proved that last season. But it's nice to have one knowing that you can limit the number of big plays to an opposing receiver.

Every opponent in the AFC North has a receiver who can cause mismatch problems. Pittsburgh has Hines Ward, the Cleveland Browns have Braylon Edwards and the Cincinnati Bengals have Chad Ochocinco, formerly known as Chad Johnson.

In the past, the Ravens could send out Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister, who, when his head was on straight, had Hall of Fame potential. McAlister, 6 feet 1, 210 pounds, was strong enough to maul receivers in press coverage at the line of scrimmage and fast enough to run with any receiver.

But the Ravens cut McAlister shortly after the 2008 season ended. That left them with no cornerbacks over 6 feet and more than 200 pounds. For a team that blitzes as much as the Ravens, having a shutdown cornerback would be ideal.

Mattison believes that every cornerback has shutdown potential; it's just a matter of finding the right guy.

"I don't know if they're hard to find," Mattison said. "I know the ones that make it in the NFL all have that ability. I don't think you can play in this league without it. Some teams may have a first wide receiver that's as good as their second and all of a sudden you say this is my shutdown guy, but the second receiver is getting the ball, too. If you're going to try to play man and you want to play aggressive defense I think they all have to be shutdown guys."

But who is the Ravens' hired gun?

The Ravens signed cornerback Domonique Foxworth to a four-year contract worth $16.5 million early in free agency, but Foxworth isn't a shutdown specialist yet. Because he spent three years in Denver where the Broncos play soft with their corners, the transition to the Ravens has caused some problems. Foxworth has made some adjustments, but not enough.

Fellow starting cornerback Fabian Washington is just as fast as Foxworth, but he isn't physical enough. Frank Walker is physical enough to challenge any receiver, but sometimes he shows up to play, and sometimes he doesn't.

"We play a lot of man-to-man coverage, and those guys are put out on an island out there," Mattison said. "Wash has done a great job; so has Frank and Fox. Every one of those guys have stepped up, and they are playing better. ... Again, we have to play that well on a consistent basis."

The Ravens might turn to veteran Samari Rolle, who for now is the team's nickel back. Rolle has yet to practice in training camp because of a neck injury, but he played well last season when he was healthy. In his prime in Tennessee, Rolle was the shutdown corner.

Will Mattison ask him to play that role again? "He did that for a long time," Mattison said of Rolle. "It's just a matter how healthy he is and the number of reps he gets in and that kind of thing. He has that kind of ability, for sure."

A future option could be rookie Lardarius Webb, a third-round draft pick out of Nicholls State. He has been impressive in training camp, but the Ravens won't be willing to gamble with a rookie guarding some of the top receivers.

The shutdown cornerback has to come from among the veterans.

"You have to be able to lock guys down, and with the way they spread you out, you have to have the ability to play man coverage, and, therefore, you have to shut a guy out. We're getting there," Mattison said.

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