The Seattle Seahawks built the NFL's most revered secondary through the draft, nabbing can't-miss safety Earl Thomas and late-round gems Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman.
In winning Super Bowl XLIX, the New England Patriots relied on "rental" cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, and a previously unknown and undrafted rookie named Malcolm Butler. The New York Jets spent nearly $150 million this past offseason to strengthen the back end of their defense.
There's seemingly no surefire recipe for success in building an NFL secondary, but one thing could become abundantly clear when the Ravens face the Arizona Cardinals on Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals, who have perhaps the league's most ball-hawking secondary, have found a formula that works for them, while the Ravens clearly haven't.
"My coaches always said that there are two areas that get you beat: quarterback and cornerback," said former NFL defensive back Solomon Wilcots, now an analyst for CBS and the NFL Network. "You've seen that with them. Cornerback [play] gets you beat faster than any other position. You make a mistake back there and it's a touchdown."
The Ravens (1-5) know that all too well. A year after a porous secondary led to their playoff demise, the team's pass defense has reached a new low. Despite general manager Ozzie Newsome's offseason attempt to fix it, the pass defense is 27th in the NFL and showing no signs of improvement.
"[We] cannot give up big plays. It's a broken record, but until we quit doing that, statistically, we're going to look terrible," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "It's not rocket science."
Breakdowns in coverage and communication, poor tackling and faulty technique have allowed even flawed quarterbacks such as Derek Carr, Josh McCown and Colin Kaepernick to take apart a once-proud and punishing Ravens defense.
Their coverage problems masked in recent years by a relentless pass rush, the Ravens have been left vulnerable by a failure to get immediate and dynamic help in the draft, a rash of injuries to defensive backs, and ongoing coaching and personnel changes.
Drafting and developing
Since 2010, Newsome has used eight of his team's 51 draft picks on defensive backs. Only three of those — cornerback Jimmy Smith (2011 first round), safety Matt Elam (2013 first round) and safety Terrence Brooks (2014 third round) — were taken in the first three rounds. That contrasts with Newsome's first seven drafts, when he took at least one defensive back within the first three rounds in six of those years.
This year, the Ravens were interested in Washington's Marcus Peters and Wake Forest's Kevin Johnson (River Hill), but both cornerbacks were taken before they were on the clock with the 26th pick. The Ravens waited until late in the fourth round before grabbing cornerback Tray Walker out of Texas Southern.
The jury is still out on Walker, but other defensive backs the Ravens have selected in recent years, including Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson, haven't worked out.
"It's hard to play as a rookie and have some success," said former NFL safety Matt Bowen, who writes for ESPN.com. "You watch a lot of these corners that come out from college, and their technique is terrible. They're not ready."
Drafting defensive backs early certainly doesn't guarantee immediate or even future success. Elam has done nothing but struggle in the NFL. Brooks has had a hard time staying on the field. Before his foot injury last year, Smith was morphing into a shutdown cornerback, but his career started slowly, too.
Six of the 14 defensive backs to be selected to last year's Pro Bowl were former first-round picks. But for every first-rounder like Revis and the Cleveland Browns' Joe Haden, there are fifth-round standouts such as the Carolina Panthers' Josh Norman, or guys such as the Denver Broncos' Chris Harris Jr. and Miami Dolphins' Brent Grimes, who weren't drafted at all.
The Cardinals have assembled their secondary more conventionally. Cornerback Patrick Peterson and safeties Tyrann Mathieu, Deone Bucannon and Rashad Johnson were all taken in either the first or third round. They now are the backbone of a defense that leads the league with 11 interceptions. That's the same number that the Ravens had for the entire 2014 season.
"We want guys with ball skills. We don't really look for guys who can't catch. When they're thrown to us, we need to catch them," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. "But they also have to be man-to-man players, very smart players, and we want guys who are extremely intelligent — especially at our safety positions, because we ask them to do a lot."
Injuries spur change
After the Ravens finished last season with a patchwork secondary, Newsome sought to create stability. Smith and strong safety Will Hill got contract extensions and starting cornerback Lardarius Webb had his deal reworked. The team also brought in outside free agents Kendrick Lewis and Kyle Arrington. But what was thought to be a much-improved unit hasn't jelled.
"A lot of things can play into it if you really want to break it down to a science: continuity, health, things like that," Arrington said. "It's just the situation we're in right now."
Smith still isn't 100 percent healthy because of the foot injury that ended his 2014 season. Webb, limited all last year by a bad back, continues to battle injuries. Lewis (knee) and Brooks (thumb) are hurt, while Elam (biceps) and cornerback Will Davis (knee) are on injured reserve.
"In a perfect world, Lardarius Webb is healthy and Jimmy Smith is healthy and you got two top corners in the league," Wilcots said.
Of course, things are far from perfect. The injuries have created a revolving door at the position with the Ravens filling holes with street free agents (remember Derek Cox and Antoine Cason?) or practice squad players. The Ravens signed cornerback Shareece Wright last week after he was dropped by the San Francisco 49ers. Five days later, Wright was beaten for two touchdowns by his former team in the Ravens' 25-20 loss.
"We may not be as good in certain places and we can do some things to help those guys, but the problem sometimes is that we're getting beat on things that, absolutely, you can't get beat on," Pees said. "I don't care who you are back in the back end or wherever it is, it's just not acceptable."
Change has extended to the sideline, where the Ravens have had a different secondary coach in three consecutive seasons. Teryl Austin left after 2013 to become defensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions. His replacement, Steve Spagnuolo, lasted one season before he was hired to lead the New York Giants' defense. Coach John Harbaugh promoted Chris Hewitt and Matt Weiss to replace Spagnuolo.
"Year after year, from the coordinator to the [secondary] coach, they've lost a lot of good coaches because of their success," Wilcots said "Obviously, the teaching and coaching and those fundamentals are very important. If you keep changing the coaches at that position, the message changes, too. It hurts the consistency that you need to develop players on the back end."
Finding the right mix
Bowen watches the Seahawks and sees the ideal secondary mix: long and physical corners who play press coverage; a free safety in Thomas with great instincts; and a hard-hitting presence at strong safety in Chancellor.
Other teams have different prototypes. The Cardinals load up on speed and athleticism. The Green Bay Packers prioritize versatility.
"You better have some guys that have some versatility, and that includes your free safety," Bowen said.
As bad as it has looked at times this year, the Ravens believe some elements are in place, but finding the right mix remains elusive. The Ravens have used safeties in the slot, converted safeties to cornerback, and recycled defensive backs of all shapes and sizes. Nothing his worked.
"What you really want is you want a guy that can just really go out there and play his position and be disciplined as heck. That, to me, is the biggest problem," Pees said. "We're not disciplined enough. It's not sometimes about physical size, speed and that. We just have to be disciplined, and we've got to get better at it, and we've got to keep emphasizing it and driving it home."
The Ravens have drafted eight defensive backs since 2010 and Jimmy Smith is the only one to make a significant impact.
Player, Pos.; Round (Yr.); Starts; Jeff Zrebiec's skinny;
Jimmy Smith, CB; 1st (2011); 35; Was developing into elite CB but has regressed this year
Chykie Brown, CB; 5th (2011); 2; Ravens ran out of patience with him after parts of 4 seasons
Christian Thompson, S; 4th (2012); 0; Appeared in just 7 games over 2 seasons before he was cut
Asa Jackson, CB; 5th (2012); 6; Has been used more on special teams than on defense
Matt Elam, S; 1st (2013); 26; On injured reserve after struggling mightily first two years
Marc Anthony, CB; 7th (2013); 0; Was cut before the end of first training camp with Ravens
Terrence Brooks, S; 3rd (2014); 0; There are high hopes for him, but injuries have set him back