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Ravens safeties Matt Elam, Darian Stewart can hit, but 'not known for picking off a lot'

Ravens free safety Darian Stewart delivered such a punishing tackle two years ago while playing for the St. Louis Rams that the impact knocked Arizona Cardinals running back Ryan Williams off his feet and sent him crashing to the ground.

The big hit left Williams woozy for several minutes, ultimately knocking him out of the game.

Although somewhat undersized, strong safety Matt Elam emerged as a feared player in the Southeastern Conference with a series of devastating hits. The Ravens drafted him in the first round last year because of his aggressive nature.

As the Ravens' new starting safety tandem, both Stewart and Elam have built hard-hitting reputations. But neither player has distinguished himself on a regular basis in the NFL in pass coverage, with the duo combining for just two career interceptions.

The Ravens' defense could be without a natural, ball-hawking safety for the second consecutive season, following former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Ed Reed's departure in free agency before last season.

"Darian is a blow-you-up guy who can be a little overaggressive, but he delivers a message," said Tony Softli, a former Rams vice president of player personnel and Carolina Panthers director of college scouting. "No doubt, he's definitely not afraid to put his face in the honey. I can see having him at free safety because he's very intelligent.

"The only real concern there is that you duplicate a bit with him and Matt Elam in terms of style. Both guys are strong safety types and not known for picking off a lot of balls. I think the Ravens can make it work, though."

In four NFL seasons, Stewart has only one interception. That occurred three seasons ago when Stewart returned an errant pass by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees for a touchdown.

Elam, who played free safety as a rookie last year, rarely made big plays as he learned the nuances of the NFL. He appeared tentative at times while making 76 tackles and two fumble recoveries with just one interception and no forced fumbles.

"I feel like I had a terrible rookie season," Elam said. "That's why I'm coming in this year and preparing the way I am. I'm looking forward to doing big things this year. I feel the sky is the limit."

Elam had his lone interception against the Detroit Lions, helping to preserve an 18-16 victory in December. After three passes defended last season, he hopes to make more of an impact this year.

"Creating turnovers, for the most part, it's very important this year for us," Elam said. "Getting the ball off people, picking the ball off or forcing fumbles, we just need more turnovers so we can win more ballgames and get the ball in the offense's hands more."

The Ravens shifted Elam back to his natural strong safety position this year after veteran James Ihedigbo signed with the Lions in March.

Elam excelled at the position for Florida, where he was an All-SEC selection who finished with 176 career tackles, five sacks and six interceptions in three seasons. It's also reminiscent of Elam's high school days in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he doubled as a linebacker and running back and was named Mr. Football and Gatorade Player of the Year in 2009.

"Yes, I feel more comfortable down in the box, closest to the ball," Elam said. "Just covering tight ends and being in the box like a linebacker, it's more comfortable being in the run game and stuff like that."

During the Ravens' 37-30 preseason victory Saturday night against the Dallas Cowboys, Elam and Stewart didn't stand out.

Stewart had three tackles, one for a loss, and a quarterback hit. He created some pressure, but his timing on blitzes could use some improvement. Elam missed a tackle in the open field during the Cowboys' opening drive that allowed wide receiver Dez Bryant to turn a short reception into a 22-yard gain. He had one tackle Saturday.

"Matt played for the ball," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "When you're trailing like that, you have to have your eyes on the upfield shoulder. You play through the upfield shoulder, should've played with his right hand, got the tackle first. If you can play for the interception, that's what you do, but he played the interception too early. That's what we call eye discipline. His eyes weren't right."

The Ravens are committed to having Elam at strong safety, but Stewart faces competition for the starting job at free safety. He's competing with Jeromy Miles and rookie third-round pick Terrence Brooks.

Brooks, the fastest free safety candidate with a 4.42 time in the 40-yard dash, is gradually learning the playbook and has only recently started getting more playing time with the first-team defense.

So far, Stewart has avoided the chronic hamstring pulls that plagued him in St. Louis. He has taken steps to improve his hydration and is stretching more to upgrade his flexibility. Injuries limited Stewart to 13 games and six starts last season as he had 36 tackles, a forced fumble and four passes defended.

"When I'm healthy, my play speaks for itself," said Stewart, who had a career-high 91 tackles and three sacks in 2011. "I feel I can do it all. … Versatile, I feel like I can tackle well, as well as make plays on the ball. … Keeping a jug of water by me, just staying stretched out, that's pretty key and just coming into camp in better shape than I was in the past."

Stewart, 5 feet 11, 214 pounds, has 144 career tackles, four sacks and three forced fumbles. He played as a hybrid linebacker at South Carolina, frequently taking on offensive linemen who outweighed him by 100 pounds.

"Darian can cover on the back end, or cover tight ends," Softli said. "He can blitz. I like him close to the line of scrimmage because of his tackling skills. When he stays within himself, he's a very good football player. He never had issues off the field, very polite and was one of my favorite players."

Signed to a one-year, $1.3 million contract in March, Stewart has an extensive background with Ravens secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo.

When Spagnuolo was the Rams' head coach, Stewart made the team as an undrafted free agent rookie in 2010 because of his physical nature.

"I know Stew real well," Spagnuolo said. "I remember Stew when he was just a young free-agent player in this league, and [now] I see a grown, mature, confident guy that I think fits really well in our room. The thing that stuck out was that he was a very explosive guy.

"I'm talking about change of direction and not necessarily just straight speed. I remember that being vivid when he was a young guy. When we took him, my hope was he'd still have that. He still does."

Both Elam and Stewart want to make wide receivers wary about crossing the middle this season, which has sparked a friendly competition between the two safeties.

"Oh, yes, of course. I let him know all the time I'm going to get the biggest hits and things like that," Elam said. "It's always competition in the back end. That's another way of pushing each other. ..

"I feel like our communication is excellent. We're great friends off the field, and we communicate on the field well. I feel like we've come a long way since we first started."

awilson@baltsun.com

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