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Dean Pees impressed by younger Ravens defense, but some issues must be resolved

Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees is usually a straight shooter, or he will at least take you where you need to go. When recently asked about third-year safety Matt Elam, Pees said Elam was having his best camp.

He pointed out Elam's progress in communication and pursuit, but pointed out that he didn't know about the tackling yet.

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Bingo. That's the million-dollar question about Elam: Is he an effective tackler yet?

So, it was interesting Monday that Pees seemed happy with the team's organized team activities, liked the versatility of the defensive line, and thought his secondary would improve from a year ago. And, judging from all his comments, it appeared as if he expects that the Ravens are going to have another strong defensive season.

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The optimism is expected coming from a coach, but there are too many questions about age and comeback attempts from injuries to know if this defense can be as good as the one in 2014.

Last season, the Ravens were ranked No. 8 overall allowing 336.9 yards per game, and fourth in rushing allowing only 88.3. They were sixth in scoring defense (18.9 points per game), but their secondary had huge holes which led to losses against top quarterbacks, including New England's Tom Brady in the AFC divisional playoffs.

And, that secondary is the major area of concern heading into the 2015 season. The Ravens have made some good, but unspectacular, additions with the signing of cornerback Kyle Arrington and safety Kendrick Lewis.

Lewis is steady. He's a good tackler near the line of scrimmage, which the Ravens didn't have in a safety last season. He'll make Elam a better player. Arrington will probably be the No. 3 cornerback. But he can play outside in a pinch, which will make starting cornerback Lardarius Webb better.

But the health of both Webb and top cornerback Jimmy Smith are still major concerns. If both return to form, the Ravens have a shutdown performer in Smith and a solid No. 2 in Webb. But if they don't, this defense is in trouble again.

Webb, because of knee and back injuries, has missed 13 games in the last three years and Smith has played only one full season in four, missing eight games in 2014 with a major ankle injury.

"I don't think there's going to be any doubt that we're going to be so much better than we were last year," said Pees. "I just really feel like there's a lot of depth back there, and what's really, I think, going to make it good is the competition.

"I don't think anybody has a spot locked up, and I think everybody has to compete, and they have to compete at the highest level, and I think they will. I'm really expecting good things out of them."

Pees has been just as impressed with his defensive line.

Granted, the Ravens do have a lot of flexibility with players who can play multiple positions, but where is the stud? Where is the new Haloti Ngata?

Third-year player Brandon Williams has the potential to be that type of standout, but starting end Chris Canty has been in the league 11 years and has trouble staying healthy. Second-year player Timmy Jernigan has great quickness which allows him to penetrate and be a disruption, but does he have the bulk to handle goal-line situations?

DeAngelo Tyson and Lawrence Guy are strong backup tackles who will be in on the rotation and defensive ends Kapron Lewis-Moore and Brent Urban could provide more depth, but both are coming off major knee surgeries that forced them to miss all of last season.

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Again, there are a lot of "iffy" situations. It's not unusual; a lot of teams have similar concerns.

The Ravens' depth and talent at the linebacker positions might make it the strength of the defense. There are constant questions concerning the longevity of outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, who played reasonably well last season even though neither dominated against top teams.

But the Ravens have some nice young players like C.J. Mosley, Arthur Brown, Zach Orr and Za'Darius Smith.

Smith, end Carl Davis, and cornerback Tray Walker are three rookies who have already made good impressions.

"You know what, I'd put them all in kind of the same boat," said Pees. "They all are doing very, very well. They're all what we thought they were when we drafted them. We are not disappointed in anybody. We think we had a great draft class, and I still feel that way.

"We have tremendous competition right now on this defense, more than I've ever seen across the board at a lot of different spots. There is always kind of … I think in years past [there has] been some kind of givens with certain guys that that's going to be it. There's a lot of competition, which is making camp a lot more fun, a lot more competitive."

Pees likes this defense and there is the potential to be outstanding. But some issues have to be resolved, and won't be until the team gets on the playing field. The Ravens have gotten younger, but you have to wonder if those players are ready to step in, or need another year of seasoning.

Even more intriguing are the injuries and age factors, and if this team can overcome them enough to make another deep run into the postseason.

twitter.com/JonMeoli

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