Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees won't know for sure until his players strap on the pads and can start making tackles, but if the way his young defense is getting to the ball in organized team activities is any indication, the Ravens might be nearing a return to their fast, ball-swarming defense of old.
"I think [the team speed] has improved a lot," Pees said. "It looks like it out here in OTAs, but again, we've got to see it when all the pads are on. … But I really do believe that we've gotten faster."
Speed, though a natural physical talent, is only unleashed when a player's instinct takes over. Repetition creates those instincts, and Pees believes some of his young defenders have been honing those instincts.
Pees said the coaching staff realized recently how young the defense is, with linebacker Terrell Suggs and nose tackle Haloti Ngata the only remaining starters from the Ravens' Super Bowl XLVII win.
Pees said the players who have ascended to starting and leadership roles have developed within the organization, and "the good thing about these guys is that they've all come in and contributed."
"All those young guys have really been able to compete, plus the guys that we've drafted," Pees said. "I think it's going to be a great competition. I think it's only going to get better."
Young defenders have been thrust into positional battles all over the defense. Linebacker C.J. Mosley, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, and safety Terrence Brooks — all selected in the NFL draft last month — will try to beat the learning curve and earn playing time. Third-year corner Asa Jackson and fourth-year Chykie Brown will compete for the third cornerback role, while second-year defensive tackle Brandon Williams will vie for time on the defensive front, among others.
Pees relishes the new faces in the system.
"There are always goods and bads," he said. "When you have the [roster] turnover, there's always a little bit of time for those guys to develop, but…you can't keep the same guys forever."
Brown 'light years' ahead
Second-year linebacker Arthur Brown, another player fighting for an increased role this year, has earned praise from the coaching staff for his development this spring.
"Art Brown has improved light years from a year ago," Pees said. "This guy has really had a great camp. He still has a moment, like all of them do, but he has so improved from a year ago. I'm really, really excited about him."
Brown, who appeared primarily in passing situations last season as a rookie out of Kansas State, made 15 tackles in 14 games, with a forced fumble and a half-sack to show for his efforts.
Pees credits Brown's development to the fact that he's healthy. Brown credits the leap to a year's worth of education in the system.
He's "really just having a better understanding of the scheme, and the concept that our coaches are installing throughout the week," Brown said. "Just having a better grasp of it, it allows me to be more efficient in executing my responsibility."
In his reps with the first-team defense Tuesday, Brown has been able to get more opportunities.
"That's really what builds a player," Brown said. "They need to rep and execute their assignment and responsibility."
Coach: Tucker still trying
Kicker Justin Tucker has only a small margin to improve on a Pro Bowl season in which he made 38 of 41 field-goal attempts and missed just one kick — a 37-yarder in Week 16 against New England — after Week 2.
Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said Tuesday Tucker's responsibility in OTAs and other offseason workouts is to attempt to get better, but ensure that he maintains the same All-Pro form as last year.
"I think the thing we all recognize is that when you're a professional, the journey never stops," Rosburg said. "You don't ever arrive. You're continuing to try to improve all aspects of your game. … Justin has been doing that."
One way Rosburg said Tucker has improved is by using the newest special teams member — rookie free-agent punter Richie Leone.
"It's a good opportunity for him to have [Leone] hold for him, because he's so used to Sam" Koch, Rosburg said. "You hope nothing ever happens during the course of a season—but if somebody else has to hold the ball, like if Tyrod [Taylor] has to hold or if somebody else has to go in and hold, he has to get used to making kicks with someone else other than Sam holding the ball. … It's a way that he can improve at the same time."
Suggs, Ngata and defensive end Chris Canty all missed their third straight OTA. The workouts are optional under the league's collective bargaining agreement. Smith, linebacker Elvis Dumervil and guard Marshall Yanda all missed OTAs for the second straight week, while tackle Eugene Monroe and receiver Jace Davis also did not suit up. Nose tackle Terrence Cody (hip), offensive lineman Jah Reid (calf), and wide receiver Kamar Aiken (leg) all missed practice because of injury. … Former Ravens wide receiver Donte Stallworth, an 11-year NFL veteran, joined the Ravens coaching staff as an intern through the Bill Walsh NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship, which the league uses to develop minority coaches. Stallworth, Stanford offensive assistant Tsuyoshi Kawata and Gallaudet defensive backs coach Richan Gaskins of Hyattsville will be with the Ravens as part of the program through the end of training camp.