Zbikowski poised to take next step for Ravens

Tom Zbikowski sprinted through the Ravens' offseason workouts like a man in search of his true identity.

Is he the strong safety who starred at Notre Dame in a down era for the Fighting Irish, a player scouts said had coverage weaknesses and would be a "box" safety playing close to the line in the NFL?

Or is he the playmaker he seemed to be his redshirt sophomore season in South Bend, Ind., when he made five interceptions and scored four touchdowns -- two on punt returns -- on a bowl-bound team?

The Ravens, who open training camp Monday in Westminster for rookies, quarterbacks and selected veterans, are about to answer those questions once and for all.

While Ed Reed rehabilitates his surgically reconstructed hip, Zbikowski, 25, will likely get the first shot at replacing the team's Pro Bowl free safety. It is no small matter in a secondary that will also be missing two cornerbacks and on a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.

If passing camps meant anything, Zbikowski is ready to step in. He showed better quickness and more understanding of the defense this summer than in either of his previous two seasons with the Ravens.

It was enough that secondary coach Chuck Pagano said he sees an "aura" about Zbikowski now and characterizes it with a reference to the silver screen.

"He's like that guy that plays [Jason Bourne in] 'Bourne Identity' … Matt Damon," Pagano said. "He's a steely-eyed assassin. Things don't affect him. You know those guys whose hands don't shake when their finger's on the trigger? He's one of those guys.

"He's not here," Pagano said, holding his left hand high. "He's not here," he added, moving his hand low. Then he moved his hand chest-high. "He's always right here. And usually 99 percent of the time, he's on point."

It's an identity born of Zbikowski's newest offseason workout regimen and his comfort zone with the Ravens. He made the first four starts of his career in December when Reed was out. In his first start in Green Bay, he had perfect coverage in the end zone against Jermichael Finley, but the Packers' 6-foot-5 tight end caught a short alley-oop floater over the 5-foot-11 Zbikowski for a touchdown.

In his second start, against Detroit at home, he drew Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, also 6-5, on a double move -- and broke up the deep pass.

Zbikowski, a third-round draft pick in 2008, had two interceptions in those four games and more than held his own. He came away from the experience with two conclusions: that he can play free safety in the NFL, but that there were certain things he needed to do in the offseason.

"In any sport, I've always gotten better after I've gotten beat or lost or had a bad play or something," he said. "I've always been able to respond. I'm a competitor, but that's really the only way I learn, up close and personal -- the reps you get on the field."

The next step, he knew, was what he did in the offseason. The Arlington Heights, Ill., native headed back to his offseason training haunt, the Turner Pain and Wellness Center in Naperville, Ill. There, he told owner Mark Turner he needed to address several self-described deficiencies, including change of direction, acceleration and jumping ability.

"This was probably the first year he was honest with himself in what he needed to improve upon," Turner said. "He felt like he was 3 inches away from a lot of big plays last year. He has really grown up this year and taken responsibility."

Turner put Zbikowski through an exotic routine of plyometrics and functional sport- and position-specific exercises. Turner said Zbikowski increased his vertical jump by nearly 8 inches.

"Before, he couldn't touch the rim," Turner said. "Now he can dunk."

Zbikowski also wanted to strengthen his neck and improve his durability in case he gets to return punts this season. He added 21/2 inches to his neck, Turner said.

The expectations add up to a playmaking safety.

"Athletically, there's been such a change this year," Turner said. "I think there will be some interceptions and there will be a fair number because he's so ball-smart. There will be some fumbles because of his hand speed; he'll be punching some balls out."

That's where boxing comes in. Zbikowski grew up in a boxing family and once trained under the legendary Angelo Dundee. He fought more than 80 amateur bouts and won his pro debut at New York's Madison Square Garden in June 2006 with a 49-second knockout.

Zbikowski wanted to incorporate boxing into his workouts. "I hit mitts," he said. "It helps to keep lean, and it helps hand-eye coordination, which is good for stripping balls."

This is, Zbikowski conceded, the most focused he has been since he went into Notre Dame's 2005 season, when he had five picks and was a third-team All-American.

Playing behind -- and learning from -- Reed has given him better insight into what it takes to play well at this level.

"When you get in there, you start understanding how very, very good Ed is," Zbikowski said. "He studies the game. He's got a great feel for the game, and he's not afraid to go make big plays. … You're never going to make the big play if you don't go for it. You never win big unless you bet big."

Zbikowski's newfound perspective is perhaps a sign of maturity. The timing might be perfect for the Ravens, who go to camp without Reed or cornerbacks Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb. They have added veterans Ken Hamlin at safety and Walt Harris at corner. But it's clear they expect Zbikowski to be the guy who replaces Reed, at least in the short term.

"Tom trained like a beast in the offseason," Pagano said. "He's leaner than he's ever been. He's explosive. He's got great range. You see the instincts, you see the ball skills, so I'm sure glad we got the kid."

Zbikowski's father can see the difference this summer, too.

"He's happy," Ed Zbikowski said. "Before, he was learning who he was and what he was about. Luckily, he stuck around and hung in. I think his attitude is 10 times better. He's more comfortable and understands his role."

Notes: The Ravens immediately sold out all eight home regular-season games Friday after putting their single-game tickets on sale. Fewer than 1,000 tickets remain for the team's two preseason games. … Revealing exactly how the Ravens haven't given him "support," Reed said during an interview on WBAL on Thursday that the team refused to give him game film when he requested it a couple of weeks ago. Reed said he was still able to watch old film that he had. A Ravens spokesman said if that happened, it was probably a misunderstanding.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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