With the Ravens’ pass defense currently floundering near the bottom of the league (23rd), it might be time for head coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to consider some personnel changes. Since the big play has been the downfall of this team on defense all season (the team has surrendered 6 pass plays and 1 running play of 40+ yards), the obvious scapegoats seem to be the safeties, who are getting caught out of position regularly.
I assumed it was Ed Reed who left Frank Walker 1-on-1 with Sidney Rice at the end of the Minnesota game, but after looking at the play on NFL Playbook (on the NFL Network), I saw that Reed was on the other side of the field, and it was strong safety Dawan Landry who watched Rice run right by him.
Landry has been a big disappointment this season. Despite his two interceptions, he often looks confused in coverage (as he did against Minnesota on Visanthe Shiancoe’s 2nd touchdown), and has been missing tackle after tackle in run support, an inexcusable sin for a strong safety. He is likely still hesitant after his spinal cord concussion suffered in 2008, but his trepidation is costing the Ravens on defense.
Ed Reed could stand to do a bit less freelancing, but let’s be honest – he isn’t going anywhere. So, is there anybody on the Ravens’ roster who can possibly step in and, if not start for, at least spell Dawan Landry from time to time? Let’s look at the candidates.
“But isn’t Tavares a linebacker?” I hear you saying. Well yes, he is. However, according to Baltimore Sun rabble rouser columnist Mike Preston, he may be more suited to safety in the NFL.
“I wonder if the Ravens ever considered moving linebacker Tavares Gooden to safety? He has great football instincts and hustle, but after watching him in the first four games, he isn’t very physical.
It’s a good move by the team to use Gooden as well as Dannell Ellerbe and Jameel McClain in a rotation. Ellerbe is a bull and McClain is a good pass rusher. Gooden has to spend more time in the weight room and become stronger. Or, the switch to safety might not be a bad idea.
Physically, I’m not sure he can hold up as a linebacker for a year.”
Two Saturdays ago, as I was sitting at Byrd Stadium with WNST Ravens analyst Glenn Clark watching the Terps embarrass themselves against Virginia, I asked him if he agreed with Preston. “Certainly,” he replied, although he was quick to point out that asking a player to switch positions midseason would be pretty drastic, and growing pains would be expected.
Currently listed as the Ravens’ backup strong safety is 2nd year player Haruki Nakamura. Haruki has seen action in all 22 games over the past season plus, but hasn’t made much of an impact. Former coordinator Rex Ryan seemed to prefer using Nakamura to blitz rather than to help out in coverage, but he has yet to register his first sack in the NFL. Nakamura picked up 2 tackles each in the New England and Minnesota games.
At 5’10” 200 lb, Nakamura compares, physically at least, favorably to such starting NFL strong safeties as Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu (5-10 207), Indianapolis’ Bob Sanders (5-8 206), and Landry (6-0 210). Now, maybe it’s just me, but he sure doesn’t look that big out there.
Another 2008 draft pick, Tom Zbikowski is currently listed as the backup free safety on the Ravens’ depth chart. Zibby is also plenty big enough, at 5-11 210, and has the right attitude for the Ravens’ defense, being an amateur boxer. He was deactivated for the San Diego game, but has played in every other contest in 2009, after playing in all 19 games in 2008. However, he has contributed more to the Ravens in the punt return game than he has on defense.
According to CDS’s draft profile, Zibby had the following strengths and weaknesses coming out of Notre Dame:
Unbelievable football player who just has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Solid technique and tackling abilities. Really versatile, with enhanced value coming from his return abilities. Strong, smart, aware. Will be a leader on the field and in the locker room. Very productive. Takes good angles and overcomes his limitations with smarts. Never gave up during Notre Dame’s very tough 2007 campaign. A warrior.
Not a safe bet in coverage. Will need to be a SS paired with an elite coverage FS to be succesful at the next level. Lacks make up speed.”
On the bright side, Ed Reed definitely qualifies as “an elite coverage FS.” Unfortunately, “not being a safe bet in coverage,” isn’t exactly what the doctor ordered at the moment.
The Ravens’ new unquestioned kickoff return specialist, Lardarius Webb is quickly becoming a household name for Ravens fans (which is why I’m finally spelling his name right). Although listed as a CB, Webb can play safety as well, as his NFLdraftscout.com profile attests:
“Lardarius Webb, a cornerback drafted in the third round, was compared by some analysts to Bob Sanders. He plays bigger than his size (5-10) and is versatile. He can make an impact as a cornerback, safety or returner. Webb has intriguing upside.”
And, from CDS:
A versatile athlete who has played quarterback for one game,as well as: wide receiver, kick return punt return, safety, and corner.
A playmaking ballhawk with superior hands, ball skills and he loves to hit. His natural position is safety but can play nickel and corner because he can cover in man. Also a good punt blocker and gunner on the punt team.
He has the range and everything else except the frame you’d like to see, he can be a reserve right away at any position in the secondary. In addition to 4.46 40 speed his 6.77, 3-Cone and 4.1 in the short shuttle all illustrate his quickness.
Lean frame, I have seen him listed at 205, but I just don’t see it. I think he’s much less than that: 190-187 at most. He also needs to be as good at and solid in reading play action as he is is in other areas. Like most top CB/safety prospects at this level he is very nosy and can get out of position trying to do too much.
He weighed in at 179 at the combine to be a FS he’ll need at least 10-15 lbs. ”
That bit about being too “nosy” and getting out of position gives us hesitation, but Webb still seems like the best bet of the four to see increased playing time after the bye. It is more likely to be at corner though , where the Ravens’ are also obviously having plenty of problems. Whether in place of Dawan Landry or Chris Carr, or as something completely different, Greg Mattison NEEDS to figure out ways to get Webb on the field.
In summary, there is no “quick fix” when it comes to the problems at safety. Dawan Landry has proven himself to be a very capable player in the past, and perhaps he can improve on his early season play in coming weeks. If he can, and if Lardarius Webb (or Nakamura or Zbikowski) can emerge as playmakers on defense, the much maligned secondary may slowly climb back into the top half of the league in pass defense.
If not, well…just hope you have Ray Rice and Joe Flacco on your fantasy team.