By Aaron Wilson
The Baltimore Sun
3:12 PM EDT, July 1, 2013
When the Ravens defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers last November at Heinz Field, veteran strong safety James Ihedigbo had a key sack late in the game.
Ihedigbo knocked quarterback Byron Leftwich to the turf, and the Steelers' backup was slow to get up and wincing in obvious pain.
Now, Ihedigbo is preparing to compete with rookie first-round draft pick Matt Elam for a starting job that opened when Bernard Pollardwas cut in March.
Although Elam is regarded as the favorite to win the competition, Ihedigbo isn't conceding anything to the former University of Florida All-American selection.
"I'm excited about the opportunity, and competition brings out the best in you," Ihedigbo said. "Matt's a great player and a great guy. I played with his brother, Abe, with the Jets. He comes from a great pedigree. I'm excited. At the end of the day, the best 11 players will be on the field. It's going to be fun. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens."
Ihedigbo had 19 tackles, one sack and a pass deflection last season, starting three games and playing in every game.
He had six special teams tackles, but the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder is expected to have a greater role on defense this season.
Two seasons ago, Ihedigbo had a career-high 70 tackles as a starter for the New England Patriots. When he was with the Jets three seasons ago, Ihedigbo had a career-high three sacks.
"The best guy has to play," Ravens secondary coach Teryl Austin said. "It doesn't matter where you're drafted and how you got here. If you're here and are performing the best, you're going to play. James brings veteran leadership. He's been in a lot of big games. I have a lot of confidence in James."
The Ravens retained Ihedigbo prior to him becoming a free agent on a one-year, $780,000 contract that includes a $715,000 base salary, $35,000 signing bonus and a $30,000 roster bonus.
"I'm excited, it's a great opportunity in front of me personally," Ihedigbo said. "As a team, we know the bullseye's on our back. We have a lot to prove.
"We lost great players, but great players are born. You have to step up and we all understand that. We have a great core of guys. We're excited about this season."
In addition to plugging in a new starter at strong safety, the Ravens also have to replace Pro Bowl free safety Ed Reed, who signed a three-year, $15 million contract with the Houston Texans. The Ravens signed former Oakland Raiders starter Michael Huff to take Reed's place.
"You talk about a guy who's a safety," Ihedigbo said of Huff. "He can play nickel, he's played corner. He's fast. He has great range around the field. I'm glad to have him on our team. He's a phenomenal player. I can't speak more highly about him."
In transitioning to new personnel, Austin pointed out that intelligence and ability to quickly pick up schemes as strong attributes for Huff and Ihedigbo.
"That's what you look for look for: guys who are smart football players, real professionals and guys who are unselfish," Austin said. "Last year, we brought in Corey Graham and he's an unselfish guy who started the year on special teams. By the end of the year, he was probably our best corner. Some would say he played extremely well. And it was because he's unselfish."