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."

awilson@baltsun.com

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