The best-case scenario for the Ravens' defensive backfield goes something like this.
Newly acquired Rod Woodson returns to Pro Bowl form, inspiring youngsters like DeRon Jenkins and rookie Duane Starks to elevate their games, thus giving the team a trio of cornerbacks capable of rattling opponents with tight, man-to-man coverage.
Veteran safeties Stevon Moore and Rondell Jones rebound strongly from off-season knee surgery, while safeties Kim Herring and Ralph Staten build on promising finishes in 1997 to become dependable contributors in their second seasons.
Then again, minicamp in June is a time for optimism. But the Ravens seriously think their days of fielding one of the NFL's leakiest secondaries are dwindling.
"This league is all about consistency. If you play well and do it consistently, eventually you win championships," Moore said. "The season is nearly upon us, and we've got depth, for a change. That's going to make the secondary better and it's going to make this team better."
Over the team's first two seasons in Baltimore, the secondary has been its most glaring deficiency. Even last season, when the Ravens (6-9-1) cut down on the big plays they allowed and watched Herring and Staten blossom late in their rookie years, they still wound up with a pass defense ranked 28th. They still gave up a hefty 20 touchdown passes and saw opponents complete 59.7 percent of their passes.
The Ravens have made their share of changes in the backfield, especially at cornerback.
Via free agency, they signed Woodson after losing veteran Antonio Langham to the San Francisco 49ers. They drafted Starks with their first pick. Although they have ranked Starks as Woodson's backup at left cornerback on the minicamp depth chart, look for Starks eventually to push third-year man Jenkins hard for the starting job on the right side.
"Rod and Starks will work on the same side, Jenkins will work on the right side for now, and we'll see how this thing works out," Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said. "With this group, we think our corners can cover better than they have previously."
Woodson, who overcame a knee injury in 1995, admittedly has lost a step. The Ravens are counting on his smarts and work ethic as much as his speed. They like the influence he could have on younger cornerbacks like Starks and John Williams, who, along with veteran Alfred Jackson, are expected to challenge for a backup spot.
"Starks and John Williams have a lot of foot speed and a lot of talent, but I think there's an overemphasis on how guys look early," Woodson said. "Once they learn how to study film, they'll get better. Good players get better as the games get closer.
"It took me three or four years to get comfortable at cornerback, to the point where I wasn't shaking in my boots," added Woodson, who played safety at Purdue. 'It's good for young guys to have good teachers, but a player has to want to learn, and he has to be his own worst critic."
The Ravens say they have found such a player in Herring, the second-round draft pick out of Penn State who has replaced Rondell Jones as starting free safety. Herring made plenty of rookie mistakes, but after starting in place of the injured Jones for the season's final four games, he finished ninth on the team with 51 tackles.
"Kim really progressed. He was comfortable by the end of the season, and he's doing a good job picking up the system again," said Moore, a 10-year veteran who hopes his two surgically repaired knees hold up in training camp. "Kim, John Williams, Jenkins, Staten -- they all made plays at the end of the season and didn't make as many mistakes."
If Moore's comeback falters, the Ravens probably will call on Staten again. He showed some impressive toughness and picked off two passes while starting the final three games in 1997, but team officials wonder if his questionable off-season work habits will hinder his progress.
"You feel comfortable with guys like Stevon and Rondell, because of the way they've worked here in the off-season. You bet on guys like that," Marchibroda said. "Kim and Ralph got more game experience than rookies usually get, and we feel comfortable with Kim. Ralph has yet to prove himself. He's shown us he can do the job, but he has to be more dependable."
Marchibroda then pointed at the secondary's depth as a strong point. Rookie safety Ryan Sutter, a quick study at Colorado, brings another promising player to the backfield.
Then there's three-year veteran Donny Brady. Benched early last season after a disastrous start at right cornerback and expected to shift to safety this year, Brady has enjoyed some fine minicamp moments at cornerback.
Marchibroda also expects the deeper secondary to benefit from a stronger defensive front seven. Ends Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett and tackle Tony Siragusa have recovered from knee injuries, and second-year linebacker Peter Boulware should benefit from a full off-season of conditioning work and his first full training camp. The Ravens hope that adds up to a better pass rush that makes the secondary's job easier.
"With the exception of Starks, we have a veteran group for the first time. We have depth for the first time," Marchibroda said. "I don't think there's any question we have more speed and more ability back there. Now the secondary has to do its job."
Pub Date: 6/10/98