Ravens need young defensive players to contribute

Jimmy Smith

Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith is one of the younger players expected to contribute this season. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / July 31, 2012)

Since the 2000 Super Bowl season, the Ravens have set a standard for greatness on defense. The torch has been passed on from a Rod Woodson and Peter Boulware to a Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed.

Great defenses in Baltimore were guaranteed like death and taxes, but we're waiting to see if the trend continues in 2012.

After three preseason games, there are a lot of questions about six of the Ravens young defensive players. There is still time for improvement, but right now you're not encouraged or discouraged.

It's a blah, blah feeling — as in mediocre.

"I would agree, the younger guys have to step up and play at the level the veterans have played at," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "If you want to sustain anything that is great like the defense in this league, there has to be an influx of younger guys.

"All our guys have done well; all are capable and poised to do it. Whether or not they do it, we'll see.

Of the six who need to play well this season, tackle Arthur Jones and linebackers Paul Kruger and Albert McClellan have played reasonably well. Tackle Terrence Cody has become more consistent in the past two weeks, but rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw and second-year cornerback Jimmy Smith have struggled.

Upshaw has been the most disappointing because he came into training camp 8 to 9 pounds overweight and out of shape.

That's absurd.

How does a rookie who signed a $5.2 million contract and is basically guaranteed a starting job report 8 to 9 pounds overweight?

Then he hurts his shoulder and misses nearly a week of practice. We have yet to see one great play from the former University of Alabama star.

"He is slowly coming along," Harbaugh said. "The shoulder injury set him back but now he has gotten a lot of reps and this upcoming game will be important for him."

Smith, the 2011 first round pick out of Colorado , looks the part. He has great size and can run with almost any receiver. But he has hardly been the shutdown type the scouts projected a year ago.

You would figure he'd have ball awareness skills by now, but that has been a consistent problem along with injuries. He has a history of back spasms going to back to his days in college.

"His position to the receiver hasn't been great," Harbaugh said. "When you are in the end zone, you can't be on top of the receiver. You have to get between the receiver and the quarterback and force him to throw over the top. He has put himself in tough positions to find the ball and he really hasn't.

"But he has all the tools to play and we're confident he will be able to do it. At Colorado, hardly anyone threw at him, so this is all part of the growing process, part of his development. We see him getting better in practice, but we want to see him do it in the games."

Smith has to grow up quickly.

The Ravens lost their top two starting outside linebackers from a year ago in Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson, and they haven't been able to get a consistent pass rush in the preseason.

With Lardarius Webb playing so well at one corner, teams are going to challenge Smith and fellow corner Cary Williams.

An easier solution would be for Kruger, McClellan, Jones or Cody to become better at rushing the quarterback.

That probably won't happen, either.

Kruger and McClellan have done decent jobs stopping the run even though both players had trouble setting the edge last week against Jacksonville.

Kruger, in his fourth season, was a part-time rushing specialist a year ago, but is an every down player now. McClellan, in his second season, has been a bonus for the Ravens.

He was an undrafted rookie out of Marshall who stepped up to replace Upshaw instead of stepping aside.

"Being able to play both inside and outside has helped his cause," said Harbaugh. "He understands this defense inside and out. He is one of those kinds of guys with no downside. He plays a real solid game and has sneaky athleticism where he can make some plays you don't expect him to make."

The Ravens might need a few more surprises. Both Jones and Cody had strong off seasons reshaping their bodies in the weight room, but neither is much of a pass rushing threat.

Cody isn't even the starting nose guard even though he'll probably get more playing time than current starter Ma'ake Kemoeatu.

Jones can push the pocket inside but he isn't going to beat anybody to the outside.

"Everybody has their strength," Harbaugh said. "He [Jones] is a run stopper, no doubt."

All teams have their specialists and the Ravens are no different. It's just at this point some of these young players haven't been strong where they are supposed to be strong.

They have to grow up, but it might take another year or two before they can pass the torch of greatness.

"I would say after the third year a young player becomes a veteran," Harbaugh said. "Either they develop and get it, or they won't be around long. That's just the nature of this business."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

 
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