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Improved secondary starts with Ravens being more opportunistic

Ravens cornerback Rashaan Melvin played rookie wide receiver Breshad Perriman perfectly during one play at mandatory minicamp this month, getting good inside position along the sideline and then deflecting the ball away.

However, as he jogged back toward the defensive huddle, Melvin was met by safety Will Hill, who told him, "You've got to pick that [off]."

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The Ravens secondary dealt with myriad issues last season when the team allowed 249 passing yards per game, which ranked 23rd in the NFL. But one of the issues that bothered the defensive backs most was a failure to create interceptions and turnovers.

The Ravens had just 11 interceptions last season, tying a franchise low that was originally set in 2005. Only six teams – the Oakland Raiders (nine), the San Diego Chargers and Washington Redskins (seven each), and the Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars (six each) – had fewer interceptions than the Ravens last year.

That's why getting their hands on and securing the football has been a point of emphasis for the Ravens in the various organized team activities and minicamp workouts this offseason.

"We want turnovers," said Ravens veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb. "If we can just get some turnovers, be top five in turnovers, then we can go a long way. We just need to get some takeaways.

"That's our thing. Let's get the ball. Let's get the ball back to Joe Flacco and let him do his thing. You know Joe's got all the pieces around him. Joe is an awesome quarterback, so if we can just give him extra possessions, it's going to be a big year."

So far, so good. Several Ravens got in the act during the offseason workouts and each interception brought a defense-wide celebration.

"I really think we probably had more picks in the OTAs this year, by far, and more batted-down balls than I've seen here in a long, long time, at least in OTAs," said Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees. "Now, we've got to see how that carries over."

While the Ravens' defensive mentality has always started with stopping the run and then hitting the quarterback, they've also prided themselves on having an opportunistic secondary. From 2006 to 2011, the Ravens averaged 21 interceptions per season. That includes leading the league with 26 picks in 2008 and 28 interceptions in 2006.

Of course, those Ravens teams had Ed Reed, arguably the best ball-hawking safety in the history of the NFL, playing center field. The current Ravens have struggled with injuries and inconsistency in the secondary.

Of the Ravens' 11 regular-season interceptions last season – the Philadelphia Eagles led the league with 21 - only six of them were by defensive backs. Inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata actually led the Ravens with two interceptions each.

But the Ravens are hoping that the return of starting cornerbacks Webb and Jimmy Smith will lead to more turnovers. They are hoping that the additions of cornerback Kyle Arrington and safety Kendrick Lewis, who each have nine career interceptions, will also help. Arrington led the league in 2011 with seven picks for the New England Patriots.

And they are hoping that that continued development of players like Hill, Melvin and Matt Elam will contribute to more turnovers.

"We've got a little system in place that guys get points every day for hustle, for pursuit, for tackling, for turnovers and all that kind of stuff," Pees said. "And those guys get very competitive in there when they put their name up on the wall and they see so many points, and if you don't have very many, you get ragged on a little bit. So, that's a little bit of an emphasis.

"The other things is [head coach John Harbaugh] put a little period in there that we call fundamentals, where we work on some kind of turnover every day. And the other thing is just emphasizing it in practice."

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