By Aaron Wilson
The Baltimore Sun
7:31 PM EDT, September 20, 2013
The education of Ravens rookie free safety Matt Elam is approaching a pivotal early phase, a moment he intends to be ready for.
The first-round draft pick already knows what's heading his way Sunday against the Houston Texans at M&T Bank Stadium. He'll be matching wits and speed with a sophisticated, high-powered offense led by veteran quarterback Matt Schaub.
Here come the play-action passes intended to gauge whether Elam is too aggressive and will overreact to fakes by sprinting toward the line of scrimmage, eager to deliver punishment. Elam also anticipates a heavy dose of double moves from receivers and for athletic tight end Owen Daniels to invade his territory across the middle.
"The veteran quarterbacks have a target on me because I'm young and it's my first year in the system, so I'm expecting it," Elam said. "They want to see how aggressive I am, because I'm young and used to be so aggressive in college, so they'll test you in that area.
"I'm relying on my skills and how I'm studying because it keeps me confident and improving. I love learning, I love improving. I want to be the best I can be."
The Ravens have enough faith in Elam to entrust him with the starting job two games into his NFL career, benching veteran Michael Huff after an ineffective season-opening performance against the Denver Broncos.
Now, Elam hopes to justify their belief that he can become the long-term replacement for Ed Reed, the dynamic former NFL Defensive Player of the Year who joined the Texans in March on a three-year, $15 million contract.
The Ravens are aware there will be a learning curve as Elam gets acclimated to the NFL.
"The biggest thing about a safety is you're in the middle of it," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "If you're not tackling well inside, people are going to run the ball on you. You're the last stop, so you've got to stay on top of different kind of passes, play-action passes.
"It's a discipline-oriented position, and that's a little tougher for a younger guy who hasn't seen everything. They'll be going after him with double moves and play-action passes. He's going to see a lot of challenging looks."
The book on Elam is still in its opening chapter, as opponents build scouting reports on the compact former consensus All-American from Florida.
What's not under scrutiny is his physical nature. Elam was a violent hitter in college, launching backs and receivers airborne with impactful collisions.
"Matt was easily the most physical hitter in the draft and is ready for the bright lights," former Philadelphia Eagles scout John Middlekauf said. "In this league, coaches are going to make him earn his stripes. Is he ever going to be Ed Reed? Probably not, but I think he'll be an excellent football player because he's a Ravens kind of guy who epitomizes the culture of that city and is a perfect fit for the AFC North.
"The hardest part as a free safety is you have to orchestrate everything. The Texans have stud tight ends and receivers. He's going to have to not get tricked with his eyes when they try to manipulate him. The Ravens signed up for some growing pains, but they did the right thing benching Huff and getting Matt on the field."
Elam's hard-hitting style reminds former NFL safety Matt Bowen of San Francisco 49ers safety Donte Whitner, his former Buffalo Bills teammate.
At 5-foot-10, 206 pounds, Elam has the requisite speed and nasty streak. That's just a starting point, though.
"It will be tough because no rookie just takes over and dominates," said Bowen, who now writes about the NFL for Bleacher Report. "As talented as Matt is, there will be times when he'll make rookie mistakes. His teammates can't think, 'Well, Ed Reed would have made that play.' Ed Reed isn't there anymore. He's a young talent who's going to be good, but needs reps and to make mistakes and learn from them at live speed. I'm excited for him, but it's not easy to play as a rookie. He's going to learn it's a full-time job and there's a lot of accountability with grown men counting on you. This is their livelihood.
"There will be ups and downs, but they've got to play him if they want to be a playoff team. He will get better every snap, every series. The next step for him is reading keys to tell him what wide receiver splits mean, game situations, field position. Then, he'll become a complete football player. You want the opposing offense to turn on the tape and say, 'I don't want to play against that guy.'"
Elam is rapidly learning that he can't force the action, especially when it's not an obvious run-support situation. He cracked a smile when asked how much he covets that first big hit.
"Yeah, it's coming," Elam said. "Patience, I got to let it come to me. When you don't, that's when you make mistakes."
In his first NFL start last week against the Cleveland Browns, Elam slipped in zone coverage and surrendered a 53-yard completion to tight end Jordan Cameron. He was also flagged for pass interference on a pass intended for Davone Bess in the fourth quarter.
It won't get easier Sunday. The Texans' tight end tandem of Daniels and Garrett Graham has combined for five touchdowns on 14 receptions.
"I didn't want to get out of the middle of the field and there was an open guy running," said Elam, who had five tackles against the Browns as they converted 4 of 15 third downs and never reached the end zone. "If I get in that situation again, I'll be more comfortable. I don't make a lot of mistakes because of the way I study and I rely on my technique."
Elam represents the last line of defense for the Ravens. By definition and scheme, his first responsibility is to guard against long passes. He's absorbing the nuances of an intricate defense.
"The biggest challenge that he faces is learning the system, because this is not a vanilla system where we play two coverages and two fronts or something like that," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "We do a lot of pressures, lot of different coverages, much more than most teams and certainly a lot more than in college.
"His physical attributes, that’s why we drafted him. The guy can run, he can hit, and he's a smart football player. It’s just it takes a little while to try to get all the pieces together. I’ve been very happy with what I’ve seen so far.”
Whether Elam is in the huddle, the locker room or defensive meetings, his naturally inquisitive personality has impressed teammates.
"He listens, takes great notes and asks anybody if he needs to know something," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "He's not going to be shy — that's the thing we like about him. He's doing a great job. We see a lot of improvement from when he first got here. He's just got to keep getting experience under his belt and he's going to be great.
"He plays like a Raven. He's a physical, tough guy who runs to the ball. He's never the last man there, and he always wants to learn."
Texans coach Gary Kubiak downplayed the notion of specifically targeting Elam, saying the first thing the offense needs to account for is blocking the Ravens' front seven.
The Texans scouted Elam, but wound up picking wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins five spots before the Ravens drafted Elam with the final pick of the first round before picking South Carolina safety D.J. Swearinger in the second round.
“We really liked him coming out of the draft," Kubiak said of Elam. "He’s a very explosive player, a guy that can cover ground but can also cover, too. We thought very highly of him, and he’s played really well for them.”
Elam piled up 176 career tackles, five sacks and six interceptions competing in the talent-rich Southeastern Conference.
Now, the work gets tougher, especially Sunday when he'll be tasked with helping defend Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson, who already has 20 receptions for 222 yards this season.
"It's very exciting and a challenge to go against one of the best receivers in the league," Elam said. "I get to go out and show off my skill set and what I do in practice every day. I can't wait."
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