Five days into training camp, Ravens secondary coach Dennis Thurman likes everything he sees. But, beginning today with a scrimmage against the Washington Redskins at M&T; Bank Stadium, it could all change.
The Ravens had the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense a year ago, but they also had their share of problems. When the Ravens played any team with a good passing game, there were a lot of nervous moments, and far too many breakdowns. Some were mental and others physical, but the Ravens gave up too many big passing plays.
Stopping those plays has drawn a lot of attention in training camp.
"We don't want to give up big plays, and that means we have to trust in each other, believe in each other," Thurman said. "As far as last year, our communication was better than it had been, but several times we had breakdowns because we had a lack of communication, a lack of trust. When we have those things, we're hard to beat. ... When we're not communicating, we're just like everybody else."
The Ravens' secondary shouldn't be average. The group should be one of the best units in the league with three starters who have earned Pro Bowl honors. Ed Reed is perhaps the game's best safety, and Chris McAlister is a shutdown cornerback who excels in either press or zone coverage. Second-year safety Dawan Landry should have a breakthrough season in 2007, and veteran Samari Rolle is still a quality cornerback.
But this group hasn't been able to bring it together. If it can, watch out.
"It's the small things that we have been working on to help ourselves," Reed said.
There are a lot of things the Ravens have worked on since last season, when they were ranked sixth in pass defense. They have worked to repair the psyche of Rolle, who was victimized for long passes several times last season. Assistant coaches have gone out of their way to emphasize that all of those weren't Rolle's fault, intimating that other players were caught out of position.
In fact, it was just one player, Reed, who has been told to either play within the scheme or risk being put on the bench. Reed's gambling hurt the Ravens last year, and they can't afford it again this season.
"I play with instincts," Reed said. "I'm never going to change my game or how I play. But, at the same time, I play within the defense and choose when and when not to go and make a play."
There's a chance you could see a fresher-looking Rolle today as compared with a year ago when he reported to training camp slightly overweight. Rolle reported at 175 pounds for this camp and worked extremely hard in the offseason lifting weights.
He is stronger than ever before, and the ankle injury that hampered him all last season has healed.
"He has his weight and speed back," Thurman said. "He is running and playing extremely well right now."
And what about McAlister?
Believe it or not, McAlister has become an introvert. He still has that pleasant, boyish smile, but he isn't talking. No trash pours from his lips. What happened? Maybe it's because McAlister has turned 30.
"He's maturing, and he knows it's time," Thurman said. "He's going to let his play speak for itself. He has been miraculous in the classroom. He's putting time in studying tape and looking into his playbook."
It is a miracle.
"When you turn 30, something inside you has to click," Thurman said. "At some point, you realize you don't have a lot of years in this league to play, and you have to maximize the opportunities to get all you can out of it."
With the Pro Bowl players in line, everything else seems to have fallen into place. Cornerback Corey Ivy has established himself as the nickel back for the second straight year, and Bart Scott will be the dime back, a role he shared last season with Adalius Thomas.
It seems strange to have a linebacker as your sixth defensive back, but Scott is versatile and extremely athletic, and can run with most tight ends and running backs. According to Thurman, defensive backs Jamaine Winborne, Gerome Sapp and David Pittman are in the mix because the Ravens' scheme is interchangeable.
"We have a variety of guys who can do more than one thing, and one of the things that has helped our defense is our versatility," Thurman said.
As far as Thurman is concerned, the secondary is like the rest of the team. The Ravens believe they have unfinished business from a year ago, and modest improvements everywhere could put them into the Super Bowl. Last season, the Ravens allowed 264.1 yards per game. They led the league in interceptions with 28 and returned five for touchdowns.
But when you think about last season, you also think about the 58-yard touchdown pass the Ravens allowed to the Browns' Braylon Edwards, the 31-yarder to the Chargers' Malcolm Floyd and the 72-yard bomb to the Panthers' Steve Smith.
And there were a few more. "Right now, everything is going well," Thurman said. "But that might change. It's only training camp. Come ask me how we're doing after Saturday's scrimmage or the first preseason game, and I might tell you something different."