By Matt Vensel
2:30 PM EDT, September 12, 2013
Before they lost track of towering Demaryius Thomas, before they let little Wes Welker wiggle out of their grasp, the Ravens last Thursday couldn’t keep track of Julius Thomas, a talented but unknown tight end before that night.
Thomas, a former college basketball player, had a breakout performance against the Ravens, scoring both Denver Broncos touchdowns in the first half of the 49-27 loss. He finished the game with five catches for 110 yards on seven targets, a performance that prompted fantasy football players to frantically click their mice.
Now the Ravens are preparing for another hardwood big man turned buzz-worthy NFL tight end, Jordan Cameron, who like Thomas just became a household name in football-savvy households. Cameron caught nine passes for 108 yards and a touchdown in the Cleveland Browns’ 23-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins.
The NFL is a copycat league, after all, and the Ravens are aware that the Browns will test their defense to see if the flaws exposed by Thomas and the Broncos have been corrected.
“Any mistake you made on any formation or any particular play, you better correct it because they’ll find out if you have,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said Thursday afternoon.
Pees, who was a little feistier than normal at his weekly press conference, said the issues defending Thomas are easy to diagnose. His men were simply getting beat in man coverage.
On the first touchdown, the Broncos, who scored on the Ravens with a screen pass in the AFC divisional round last year, used a fake screen to catch the Ravens off guard. Quarterback Peyton Manning pump-faked the screen to Eric Decker. Veteran middle linebacker Daryl Smith bit on the fake and abandoned Julius Thomas, who was left wide open for the touchdown.
On the second touchdown, free safety Michael Huff lined up across from Thomas, who simply ran straight up the seam past Huff, who had help over the top from fellow safety James Ihedigbo. But Manning, with great touch and sense of timing, lofted a pass between the safeties to Thomas, who avoided Ihedigbo’s tackle attempt on his way into the end zone.
“Every ball that the tight end caught, he was in man coverage. … That guy’s got to play better technique or we’ve got to coach better technique,” Pees said, not naming any names per usual.
During the 2012 regular season, the Ravens only allowed two touchdowns to tight ends, but players such as Brent Celek, Jason Witten and Owen Daniels piled up catches and receiving yards against them. In the playoffs, they struggled against explosive receiving tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Vernon Davis, who had six catches for 104 yards in the Super Bowl.
The trend carried into last week’s season opener, with new faces on defense having similar issues as their predecessors.
While studying Cameron, the Ravens came away impressed with the Browns tight end, who like Thomas is 6-foot-5, 25 years old and a first-time starter in his third NFL season.
“He’s really looked good,” coach John Harbaugh said this week. “He’s emerging as a real threat, and I would expect based on how the tight end played against us last week, that’s going to be something that they think they can attack and use.”
Ihedigbo praised Cameron for his hands and route-running ability, calling him a “big-time target” for quarterback Brandon Weeden. Against the Dolphins, Cameron outfoxed a double team to make a leaping grab in the back of the end zone.
Huff said the Ravens' issues are correctable, that they can cover better in man-to-man and squeeze their zones tighter. Ihedigbo said they have to get back to playing their game.
“You’ve just got to be physical,” Ihedigbo said. “That’s our mentality this week, to be the most physical team, to play our style of defense and knock people in the face and let them know it.”
If that doesn’t work, and the Ravens defense allows another tight end to gain more national notoriety with another big game, count on opposing offenses testing them until Pees and company come up with a solution.
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