For much of his playing career, Tony Jefferson has trained himself to forget the highs and lows of a game. But he can't seem to shake the memory of a play from nearly two weeks ago.
The Ravens strong safety bit on Chicago Bears rookie running back Tarik Cohen's run to the right only to watch him loft a 21-yard pass to tight end Zach Miller streaking behind the defense into the end zone. That play contributed to Chicago escaping Baltimore with a 27-24 overtime win and continues to haunt Jefferson.
"That's going to stick with me forever," he said Monday. "We were whipping some butt in that game, and on that play, I was being aggressive, just being me. I'm an aggressive guy, that's what I do, and they got me. I was undisciplined on that, and that's always going to be on my mind every game. That's going to help me be a better player."
The arrow is pointing upward. At the end of this year, we’ll be playing lights out.
Eric Weddle, Ravens free safety
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Jefferson, who signed a four-year, $34 million contract with $19 million guaranteed March 10, was added to anchor a defensive backfield that already included free safety Eric Weddle. But through seven games, the duo's performances have shown some leaks.
In a 44-7 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sept. 24, Weddle was on the wrong end of a 30-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Blake Bortles to tight end Marcedes Lewis. And in that setback to the Bears, Weddle mistimed a strip attempt of running back Jordan Howard, who ran 53 yards to set up the game-winning field goal in overtime.
In Sunday's 24-16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, Jefferson missed tackling running back Latavius Murray on two carries — the last of which was a 29-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
Those outings have been reflected in Pro Football Focus rating Jefferson and Weddle as the Nos. 63 and 68 safeties, respectively, in the league thus far.
Overall, however, the pair has been productive. Jefferson is tied for second on the defense in sacks with two and ranks second in tackles with 35, while Weddle is tied for second on the defense in interceptions with two and ranks third in tackles with 33.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees said their contributions have outweighed their mistakes.
"They run the show back there, especially Eric," he said after Tuesday's practice. "I know there have been some tackles missed, and back there, you just can't miss a tackle. If you miss a tackle back there, everybody in the park knows it and everybody in the world knows it. If you miss one up front, nobody kind of knows it unless somebody gets it on the ground in the back. I'm happy with them. They're two good pros. We're struggling a little bit right now. I think we're pressing a little bit. We've got to get back to just letting it go and playing football and playing defense. I think we're all pressing — me included — sometimes, and that's usually not a good thing."
"I feel like we're extremely close, and we know how each other thinks and plays on the field," he said. "It's still about getting that game experience. We're working towards becoming what we should become, and that's being the best tandem back there. We're not playing at as high of a level as we want to because there's one or two plays that are creeping up on us. But the plays from last week, those are tough plays to make."
While this is Weddle's second year with the Ravens, Jefferson is still absorbing the nuances of playing the strong safety position after spending his first four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. Known as a sure-tackling run stopper, Jefferson is being asked to expand his pass-coverage responsibilities.
Jefferson credited secondary coach Chris Hewitt, Pees, and coach John Harbaugh with educating him on his new role.
"I'm getting coached by Weddle as well," Jefferson said. "I feel like I'm becoming a complete safety rather than being painted as an in-the-box safety. I've been playing in all different types of coverage — coverages that I've never played before. Like I said, I'm still learning."
Harbaugh said the team has no regrets about pursuing Jefferson as one of its coveted free-agent signings.
"Nobody works harder," he said. "He knows the defense. He knows the defense as well as any guy who's been in it for a few months is going to know it. But Tony is going to make those tackles. We were talking about that one, on the breakaway run [against Minnesota], in the early part of practice, and talking about the angles. He's a student of the game, a good tackler. He's going to make a lot of tackles. The least of our concerns right now is Tony Jefferson."
The bond between Jefferson and Weddle is strong. Weddle will be a groomsman in Jefferson's wedding, and Jefferson credited Weddle with keeping up his morale after the game against Chicago.
“I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t eat after the Chicago Bears game because of that halfback pass,” Jefferson said. “That killed me. But he was there and kept me up with his spirits. He said it’s happened to him before in his career, too. So I just have to move on from it. It’s just what it is.”
Weddle said he has no doubts that he and Jefferson will begin to showcase the impact they can make for the defense.
“There are still some things that he does or likes to do that he’s really good at, and I’m still trying to feel him out,” Weddle said. “Just seeing those situations, we’re trying to put him in those. If there’s a blitz or a certain coverage that I can move him and get him into the mix, it’s just learning those things on the fly. It’s our first time playing together. But I’m getting there, and we’re coming around. He played great in pass defense last week. The arrow is pointing upward. At the end of this year, we’ll be playing lights out.”