Inside the Ravens' nearly empty locker room, cornerback Antonio Langham sat down, rubbed his chin, stared dejectedly at the floor and tried to come up with answers to explain his slump. At that moment, he seemed like a man alone on an island.
Then again, Langham is used to that feeling. As a third-year NFL player, Langham makes his living in the corner's glaring, uncompromising spotlight. It's a stage on which your greatest moments and worst mistakes are framed for easy viewing.
"Nobody sees the right guard screw up, but everybody can see the cornerback when he does," Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. "You've got to have a tough mentality on the corner. That's why you see some guys play the position for a while, then vanish off the face of the earth."
Langham is trying to stop himself from drifting in the wrong direction. For the first month of the 1996 season, the stage has not been kind to him, or to the Ravens' defense as a whole. When Langham allowed New England receiver Shawn Jefferson to break free in the end zone and catch a Drew Bledsoe pass during the Patriots' 46-38 victory on Sunday, it continued a disturbing trend for the Ravens' top cornerback.
He has allowed a touchdown pass in each of the Ravens' five games. Not that Langham is alone in this area. The 2-3 Ravens have surrendered 11 touchdown passes, more than two per game.
But, as a first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns in 1994 who justified that draft decision by winning numerous defensive Rookie of the Year honors, Langham said he is fighting self-doubt more than at any other time in his young career. Last year, he suffered through a subpar season in which he was slowed by a deep shoulder bruise and ligament strains in both thumbs.
This year, his body is healthy. Only his pride is hurting.
"I'm going through some tough times. I'm out there on the island, and everybody knows who's getting torn up out there," Langham said. "I can't pinpoint what's going on. I don't feel like there's a lot of major things that are going wrong. I've been a split-second late turning around and finding the ball. I've been a half-step away from making this play or that play. I'm not a player who believes in excuses. I've got to pick my game up."
Langham is not solely to blame for his failures. The Ravens began the season with a suspect pass rush, and with an NFL-low six sacks nearly a third of the way through the season, they barely have a hint of one now. The lack of a pass rush usually means tough days for the secondary, since opposing quarterbacks have too much time to find open receivers.
Langham plays left cornerback, which finds him matched against the opponent's top receiver often each week. That gives him even less margin for error at a position where success and failure are defined by inches.
For example, in the season opener against the Oakland Raiders, All-Pro Tim Brown beat Langham on a simple, short out pattern to the end zone flag, after Langham lined up 7 yards off the ball in man-to-man coverage, then backpedaled one step too far before breaking toward Brown. Langham's recovery was a second late. Too late. Touchdown.
Sunday's touchdown by Jefferson came when Langham relaxed, after Bledsoe stepped up in the pocket and appeared set to scramble. Langham also has seen numerous perfectly thrown balls go just beyond his outstretched hand and negate his tightest coverage. He has dropped at least two interceptions. All of which makes his mistakes that much more magnified.
"I'm trying to figure out why I'm not making the plays," Langham said. 'I'm jamming the hell out of receivers in our man-to-man, and in zone coverages, I'm close but no cigar. You start looking at yourself."
Ravens strong safety Stevon Moore knows all about life on the corner. He played there at Mississippi, before the New York Jets drafted him in 1989 and moved the 210-pounder to safety.
"Ninety-five percent of the time, he is right there on his man, and he busts his rear end to get there," Moore said of Langham. "The most important thing Antonio has to worry about is finishing the play. And I don't want him to stop playing aggressively.
"A lot of great players in this league get beat, and great players overcome it. I consider him a great player. He's got to believe that he's going to get the job done. Don't hang your head after giving up a touchdown. Make an interception on the next play."
Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel, said Langham is simply going through a slump that all players eventually face, especially those who walk the weekly high wire on the corner. Newsome noted that Langham is playing for his third defensive backs coach in three years.
"Regardless of how your career starts out, you eventually go through a period like he is going through," Newsome said. "All you can do is keep taking batting practice, keep practicing your free throws, keep going to the driving range. You need a short memory at that position. You become a better player when you go through something like this."
The game seemed so easy early on for Langham. At Alabama, he was one of the great cornerbacks in Crimson Tide history. As a three-year starter, Langham broke the school record with 19 interceptions. After the Browns made him the ninth player overall selected in the 1994 draft, he earned rave reviews by knocking down 29 passes and intercepting two more. Life on the corner was sweet.
These days, Langham is questioning himself.
"I'm faced with a difficult situation," said Langham, who sounded as if he were talking to himself. "Can you regroup? Can you become the man and the player people expect you to be?
"Am I going to go 11 more weeks having a touchdown pass get caught on me each week? No, I'm going to take my game to much-needed, higher level."
When asked if Langham's starting job could be in danger without much-needed improvement, Lewis shook his head and shrugged.
"We're all in danger," Lewis said. "There really is no magic to this. Antonio needs to get back to fundamentals and use his combination of athletic ability and instincts. He's gotten a little tentative. I know he's got a strong will, and I have confidence in him. He doesn't need to put pressure on himself. He needs to go out and play."
Pub Date: 10/11/96