By Aaron Wilson
The Baltimore Sun
10:31 PM EDT, June 4, 2014
Ravens safety Matt Elam often used a cautious approach during his rookie season to avoid making mistakes.
That led to Elam thinking more than playing instinctively and he produced few big plays as he started all but one game at free safety after being drafted in the first round.
Now that Elam is shifting to his natural strong safety position, he's hoping to play with a lot more authority and aggressiveness.
"I wasn't happy about it at all," Elam said of his rookie season. "That's why I approached the offseason the way I did, getting myself in shape, losing weight, getting myself fit and in shape physically and mentally to get myself right to take the next step.
"That's why I feel so confident. I know the playbook a little more because I watched a lot of film. I feel like I had to take the next step, and that's what I'm trying to do."
After deferring to veteran James Ihedigbo last year as the primary defensive signal-caller in the secondary, Elam is expected to take on more of a vocal leadership role in his second season.
With Ihedigbo having left to sign with the Detroit Lions, there's a void that Elam is hoping to fill.
"He has really good control of the back end," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Elam. "It's pretty seamless. I haven't seen too many miscommunications, and I don't think any when Matt's been back there. He's really grown, so that's been a real plus."
Elam recorded 66 tackles last season, but had just one interception and three pass deflections. He allowed long receptions to Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley and Cleveland Browns tight end Jordan Cameron.
Elam's best performance was during an 18-16 win over the Detroit Lions when he preserved the victory with an interception in the final minute and recorded a career-high 10 tackles. That followed Elam saying before the game that Lions star wide receiver Calvin Johnson was old during an otherwise complimentary interview.
"The person who is just really growing is Matt Elam," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "From last year to this year, I see a big jump with his leadership, with him controlling the back end and just being that safety, controlling the calls. I just really like where I see him going. When he's being vocal, he's confident in what he's saying.
"If he makes a call, that's the call and you're going to play it. Last year, he wasn't like that. James kind of did it. He's taking that role now. Last year, I was a veteran, so I guess he didn’t communicate with me like he wanted to. Now, if he says it, it’s what he says. We play what he says. He speaks with confidence now, and you can just tell.”
Entering the second year of a $6.767 million contract that includes $5.439 million guaranteed, Elam wants to play faster and think faster on the field.
Elam said he's lost roughly 10 pounds to get down to 200 pounds.
"Last year, I came in a little heavier and I feel like I had to run around a little more this year," Elam said. "So, I toned up a little bit. I was up there and I don't want to be up there this year. I want to be a little lighter, so I can run around a little more."
Although Elam has shown signs of improvement, he had a few rough moments Wednesday during an organized team activity. Elam was beaten over the middle for a long reception by wide receiver Steve Smith. He was also faked off his feet by running back Justin Forsett and taunted afterward by center Gino Gradkowski.
Elam is expected to line up at strong safety next to either veteran free safety Darian Stewart or rookie Terrence Brooks, a third-round draft pick from Florida State.
By going back to strong safety, Elam returns to the position where he was an All-American selection at Florida who registered 176 career tackles, six interceptions and five sacks. It gets him closer to the line of scrimmage.
"That's what I did in college because I played a lot of nickel," Elam said. "I was closer to the line of scrimmage, so I was more confident. In high school playing linebacker, that's what I was more confident at.
"You have to build your stock. You have to be able to do more, play the nickel, play free, strong, play corner. I just want to do whatever I can to help this team win and get back to where we were."