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Ravens' primary goal for secondary: no big plays

Wide receiver Malcom Floyd of the San Diego Chargers scores a third quarter touchdown past strong safety Will Hill #33 of the Baltimore Ravens and cornerback Jimmy Smith #22 of the Baltimore Ravens during a game at M&T Bank Stadium on November 1, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. It is one of four pass plays of at least 60 yards allowed by the Ravens over the first half of the season.
Wide receiver Malcom Floyd of the San Diego Chargers scores a third quarter touchdown past strong safety Will Hill #33 of the Baltimore Ravens and cornerback Jimmy Smith #22 of the Baltimore Ravens during a game at M&T Bank Stadium on November 1, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. It is one of four pass plays of at least 60 yards allowed by the Ravens over the first half of the season. (Matt Hazlett / Getty Images)

No matter how much the Ravens' beleaguered secondary improves after the bye, they know a single big play allowed over the top of their coverage can negate it all.

Chief among the secondary's responsibilities in this extended respite, defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt said, is to erase the back-breaking big passing plays they've allowed over the first eight games from their memory, and ensure they don't crop up again the rest of the season.

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"Can't happen," Hewitt said of the big plays. "Don't want 'em. Don't need 'em. We've got to do a much better job.

"We've given up a couple big plays in the last couple games, and we don't want it to become a common thread, but those guys are working hard to make sure that doesn't happen. What happens is, as a guy in the secondary, when you start giving up big plays, you start playing a little bit back on your heels to not give up big plays. We've just got to get that aggressive mentality back."

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The Ravens' 30th-ranked pass defense allowed four touchdown catches of more than 60 yards in its first eight games — a 68-yard reception by Oakland's Amari Cooper, an 80-yarder by Cincinnati's A.J. Green, a 76-yarder by San Francisco's Torrey Smith, and Sunday's 70-yarder by San Diego's Malcom Floyd.

Nineteen NFL teams haven't allowed even one 60-yard completion.

Their 33 completions of 20 or more yards allowed is third-most in the NFL, while the eight completions of 40 or more is tied for fourth-most in the league. Opposing quarterbacks average 8.4 yards per attempt against the Ravens. Only two teams are worse in that category.

Coach John Harbaugh said the team's coverage, overall, is "dramatically better" now than it was even two weeks ago.

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"Obviously, it's not where it needs to be yet, but we're going to get there," Harbaugh said. "We're going to get there no matter how long it takes. But the clock is ticking on the season, so let's go ahead and do it immediately. That would be the time to get it done. We expect to be a no-big-play coverage team."

That expectation is why cornerback Jimmy Smith said Harbaugh's praise of improved coverage falls hollow to him.

"To be very, very honest with you, I don't think too much has changed," Smith said. "We've played good coverage throughout most game, and then we'll give up a play. …

"We have to try and focus on not giving up that type of play, chunk plays. Teams want chunk plays and when you give them up, it's embarrassing a little bit."

Smith has been one of the constants in a secondary that has seen its fair share of turnover this year. Safety Will Hill has played essentially every snap this season, but free safety Kendrick Lewis missed a game with a knee injury, cornerback Lardarius Webb missed a game with a thigh injury, and cornerback Kyle Arrington's role has fluctuated through injury and fit issues.

Cornerback Will Davis, acquired from Miami after Week 2, seemed to be the Ravens' best outside option other than Smith before Davis tore his ACL and was placed on injured reserve after the loss to Cleveland in Week 5. Shareece Wright was signed and has since taken over that role.

Hewitt said Smith "has been dominating people" despite being in coverage on several costly big plays.

"Has he had dominating games? No. But he's had dominating plays," Hewitt said. "… I think he's continued to keep on getting better as a player. He'll be the first to tell you that he wants to be better, and he's put a lot of weight on his shoulders and a lot of stress on himself to become that leader, or that big-time playmaker that we need."

Wright, Smith's high school teammate and longtime friend, debuted in Week 6 against the San Francisco 49ers and allowed two long touchdowns, but Hewitt praised his work since as well. Hewitt said it's "difficult" to build chemistry in-season after a different group, including since-released cornerback Rashaan Melvin, worked together so much over the summer.

But chemistry takes time to develop. The Ravens hope to stop the big plays downfield in short order, and more importantly, make some of their own. The Ravens defense hasn't forced a turnover since a fourth-quarter strip sack of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in Week 3. Their last interception, Smith's second of the season, came earlier in that game.

It's been 57 drives since the defense last forced a turnover, but Hewitt says they can't press for an interception.

"We just haven't had the opportunities," he said. "The last thing that you want to do in the secondary is try to press to go make plays. The plays are going to come to you. What we do out here in practice is to make sure when a play comes, we're going to make them."

Interceptions are harder to come by in man-coverage schemes than zones, where players' eyes aren't always on the quarterback. When playing man, how long that coverage must be held is dictated by how quickly the quarterback is forced to get rid of the ball.

The secondary has little to do with that, but linebackers coach Ted Monachino said it's an 11-man effort to ensure that coverage doesn't need to be held for longer than a few seconds.

"I believe the best pass defense is a good pass rush," Monachino said. "And those things work together and right now, we're not getting it done on either end. I know that our secondary guys would cover a lot better if we could get the ball out of the quarterbacks hand much faster."

Twitter.com/JonMeoli

Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this story.

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