Ravens coach John Harbaugh noticed one thing in particular as he watched film of a revamped Dallas Cowboys secondary using a variety of coverages to blanket offenses.
"They get up in your face when they play quarters. They get up in your face when they play halves. And when they play [Cover 3], they're in your face," he said. "It's just the style they play."
At M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, the Cowboys will utilize an aggressive approach similar to the one the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles used to slow down the Ravens' eighth-ranked passing attack earlier this season. Struggles against physical press coverage were as much of a factor in those two sluggish showings as inaccurate throws, protection breakdowns or lopsided play-calling.
For Baltimore to move the ball through the air against a top-ranked Dallas pass defense, Ravens wide receivers must shake free of physical Cowboys cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, who excel at bumping receivers out of their routes at the line of scrimmage.
But the burden of beating press coverage is not just on the wide receivers. The whole offense, including quarterback Joe Flacco and an offensive line that is starting to show some cracks, will need to be in sync and on point, which was not the case in last Sunday's 9-6 win in Kansas City.
His timing with his wideouts disrupted by cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Stanford Routt and his pocket dented by edge rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, Flacco completed just 13 of his 27 attempts for 187 yards and one interception. The Ravens' 298 total yards were a season low, and it was Flacco's first game without a touchdown pass since Week 13 of last season.
"If we get out there and run crisp routes and get the ball out of my hand and protect, that's how you beat it," Flacco said. "But if you get a little sloppy here and there and you aren't as precise with the ball, that's when you can let some of that tight underneath coverage get to you."
Harbaugh's staff and the players talked at length Monday about the need to make adjustments. Schematically, the Ravens may use more bunch and stack formations to try to pick cornerbacks within the rules — something the Chiefs offense crossed the line with and were flagged for last Sunday — and they could try to free up the wide receivers by running more crossing patterns.
Wide receivers coach Jim Hostler and veteran receiver Anquan Boldin — who usually thrives when cornerbacks try to bash bodies with him — have tutored the young receivers on boxing out cornerbacks and chopping their hands away to escape the 5-yard area in which defenders are allowed to make contact. Against Kansas City, Boldin led the Ravens with four catches for 82 yards. Torrey Smith had three catches for 38 yards and Jacoby Jones was targeted twice but didn't have a catch.
"You have to win those first 5 yards. It's really about the first 7 yards now," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said last week. "You better be able to run through those 7 yards, get yourself free, get yourself clean, get some separation so Joe can get the ball out."
The wide receivers were also greeted Wednesday with press coverage from tall, long-armed cornerbacks Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith, who tried to jam them at the line of scrimmage.
"We're going to see press coverage all year," wide receiver Jacoby Jones said. "We can run and teams are going to try to slow us up. That's what we're working on every day in practice."
They will need to be quick studies with the Cowboys coming to Baltimore this weekend.
After the Cowboys were victimized by long pass plays late in games last season, they were determined to upgrade their secondary this spring. They signed Carr, who is listed at 6-foot and 210 pounds, away from the Chiefs with a five-year, $50 million deal. Then they traded up eight spots to the sixth overall pick to draft Claiborne, who is 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, out of LSU.
"We felt like we just needed to get better on the back end. It's become such a passing league, and we just felt like it was important for us to allocate some resources to get those guys," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said on a conference call. "I think any defensive coach, and really any offensive coach, would tell you that if you have real good corners and real good cover guys on the back end, it gives you much more freedom to play what you want to play on defense."
The Cowboys have allowed 169.5 per game after surrendering 244.1 passing yards per game in 2011, which ranked 23rd in the NFL. But Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler completed 18 of 24 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns against them in their last game two weeks ago.
The Ravens believe there will be opportunities to exploit the aggressive press coverage if their offensive linemen can hold their blocks long enough for their speedy outside receivers to get out of a jam. That won't be easy against Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Ware, whom Harbaugh called "a game wrecker" and "one of the premier players in the National Football League."
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"Part of what makes them a good pass defense is that they have a good pass rush," Flacco said.
Quick pressure with press coverage can throw off the quarterback's timing with his receivers. That happened at times in the 24-23 loss in Philadelphia in Week 2. With Trent Cole and Jason Babin crashing the pocket, Flacco averaged just 5.5 yards per attempt.
But on one play, the offensive line held off the Philadelphia pass rush long enough for Flacco to connect with Jones, who outmuscled then outran Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha for a 21-yard touchdown.
The Ravens receivers hope to replicate that play when the Cowboys get in their faces Sunday.
"You've got to bring it right back," wide receiver Tandon Doss said. "You can't shy away from it."