Ravens have healthy competition at safety

It was a throw-away line at the end of Tom Zbikowski's six-minute session with the media Friday, but it said everything you need to know about the camaraderie inside the Ravens locker room.

Asked if the open competition with close friend Haruki Nakamura for the strong safety position was awkward, Zbikowski said in his best deadpan voice, "Yeah, there is a lot of tension. Our friendship is pretty much over."

Everyone listening knew immediately Zbikowski was joking, as did Nakamura, who was waiting his turn at the microphone. Laughter reigned and Nakamura chuckled, too.

"You know what the great thing about being part of this organization is?" Nakamura said. "It's competition. It doesn't take away from each other's friendships, it doesn't add grudges. We joke around all the time, but there's no tension in the room. It's just unique to have a place like this because … we all feel like we could start anywhere in the NFL.

"We feel like the backups are some of the best in the league and we just happen to all be on the same defense."

Until Thursday, the competition to replace Dawan Landry, a free agent who left for Jacksonville, was between Zbikowski and Nakamura, both of whom arrived in the 2008 draft. Then the Ravens signed free agent Bernard Pollard to a two-year contract and it became a three-man competition.

The attitudes of Zbikowski and Nakamura are an example of why Pollard, a five-year veteran himself, wanted to join the Ravens.

"They're very good players," Pollard said. "And competition is very healthy. I don't know too much about the guys, but I got a chance to talk to Zibby. Obviously I played against him [at] Purdue, so I've seen him a few times — very good player. I'm excited because I don't want anything handed to me, and I know he's the same way. And nobody on this team wants anything handed to him."

Pollard arrives with a reputation as a heavy hitter — sometimes too heavy — and an intense player. After two years in Houston, the Texans made him a scapegoat for the NFL's worst pass defense. Even though he led the team with 111 tackles at strong safety, he was criticized for his pass coverage and allowed to leave.

"I'm looking to bounce back and I'm looking to be used, whether it's blitzing, whether it's covering," Pollard said. "I'm ready to shut people up because … I get tired of hearing so many people say [negative] things. You try to block it out, but I'm on a mission."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh agreed that Pollard has a lot to prove. But Harbaugh also expects to have to make a tough call on the position at the end of camp.

"We pretty much have our options there, adding Bernard now, so they're pretty much going to have to duke it out," Harbaugh said. "We'll see who the best player is. I expect them all to play at that level, and I expect it to be a tough decision."

Zbikowski started six games last year when Ed Reed started the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list. He missed eight of the last 10 regular-season games, and both playoff games, with foot and back injuries. But four years into the system, he and Nakamura both know the defense well enough to play either safety spot.

Nakamura last season had to fight his way back from a dislocated ankle and broken fibula suffered in 2009. He didn't miss a game, playing in a variety of roles, including as the sixth defensive back. He said he wasn't surprised the Ravens signed Pollard.

"No, this is an organization that's trying to win a championship," he said. "And you can never settle with whatever you have on the team."

Zbikowski said it was the nature of the game to always find new competition.

"It is the NFL," he said. "It's going to be the way it is every single year. Ed [Reed] is a special athlete. Ed has been doing it for quite some time, so he is a type that has that locked in. For everyone else, it makes everything interesting. It makes practice fun. It makes everything enjoyable."


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