With Eric Weddle and Lardarius Webb, Ravens breaking the mold of traditional safeties

The Ravens' best defenses in years past have had clearly defined roles for their safeties: in 2000, free safety Rod Woodson and strong safety Kim Herring; in 2006 — and many years after — free safety Ed Reed and strong safety Dawan Landry.

One safety had one role; the other had a different one. This year, the Ravens have two new safeties — one new to the team, the other new to the position — who aren't as quick to make the distinction.


"We're both safeties," former cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "We don't just kinda put specifics on it. We're safeties."

Free safeties are traditionally smaller and quicker. They stay back in the secondary and serve as the final line of defense against the deep pass.

Strong safeties are usually bigger and more physical. They sometimes play in the box and deliver hard hits.

Webb and Eric Weddle, the Ravens' big free-agent acquisition from the San Diego Chargers, would both be considered free safeties by those standards. Their pairing heading into this season as one of the most drastic changes the Ravens have made to try to improve on last season's 5-11 finish. A successful season from them together would prove that the conventional model is just that.

"As far as the traditional notion of safeties and having the box guy [strong safety] and the deep guy [free safety], there's something to that," coach John Harbaugh said this past week at training camp. "If you have those types of guys, you're going to have to build your defense around those guys. But there's really something to be said for having two athletes back there that can move and make plays. We feel it's really important for us to have guys back there that can make plays on the ball."

Most teams no longer differentiate between free and strong safeties on their rosters, but some still use the same approach. Perhaps the best safety tandem in the NFL consists of the Seattle Seahawks' Earl Thomas (5 feet 10, 202 pounds) and Kam Chancellor (6-2, 225), who have patrolled one of the league's most feared defenses over the past five years. Thomas covers massive range while Chancellor serves as the thumper.

A more familiar foe for the Ravens was the Cincinnati Bengals' pairing of Reggie Nelson (5-11, 210) and George Iloka (6-4, 225) until Nelson signed with the Raiders in the offseason. The Ravens are 1-7 against the Seahawks and Bengals when they've faced those duos.

For a long time, the Ravens ran their secondary the same way. One of the most productive safety combinations in franchise history was Reed and Landry, who teamed up from 2006 to 2010, helping the Ravens to allow the fewest points per game in the NFL (12.6) in 2006.


Reed was listed at 5-11, 205 pounds, Landry at 6-1, 212, each fitting the ideal profiles for their positions. When Landry left after the 2010 season, the Ravens replaced him with 6-foot-1, 225-pound Bernard Pollard for the last two years of Reed's tenure in Baltimore.

The Ravens then opened last season with a similar pairing of 6-foot, 205-pound Kendrick Lewis as a free safety type alongside 6-foot-1, 228-pound Will Hill as more of a strong safety. The result was a defense that ranked 24th in the NFL in points allowed per game, its worst finish since 1996.

They spent the offseason remodeling their roster, and at safety came perhaps the biggest change. They signed Weddle, moved Webb, cut Hill and made Lewis the backup, dismissing the idea of a true strong safety in order to get faster in the defensive backfield and create more turnovers. Webb (5-10, 182) and Weddle (5-11, 195) are small compared to others before them and represent a significant change in the defense's makeup.

Why the Ravens' two safeties could work together, when they wouldn't have five years ago, is largely a product of opposing offenses shifting toward favoring the passing game. Where Landry and Pollard were useful to blitz, stop the run and match up with the tight end, most safeties don't play that role anymore. Opposing tight ends are geared toward catching passes, for which Webb and Weddle are better matchups, and defenses rely on their front sevens to stop the run.

There is a drawback, of course. As the Ravens maximize speed, they forgo size in the secondary, leaving Webb and Weddle responsible for making more open-field tackles than an ordinary coverage safety. The toll that takes on two relatively small players remains to be seen, but Webb said he's up for the challenge.

"I think we're both more of a free safety, but we both can tackle, really good tacklers. So it's just whatever the defense does," Webb said. "I think it'll be good, interchangeable players. We can do both. So that's gonna kinda be our advantage this year, being able to do both."


As for the specific interaction for the two new teammates, the transition appears to be going smoothly. In the opening days of training camp, during live drills, both have played in several spots on the field. Usually, they start the play in the defensive backfield, but both have also shaded toward the line of scrimmage in various formations.

Weddle and Webb can also help each other with their respective transitions. Weddle has never played with his Ravens teammates or in coordinator Dean Pees' defense, while Webb has never played safety for a full season.

"The more we practice together, the more we get to feel what our communication will be — my looks, his looks, what I'm saying when I say certain things," Weddle said Thursday. "The biggest thing is no mental errors throughout the practice."

Another role of safeties is to organize the defense. Weddle, a three-time Pro Bowl pick, is experienced in that.

"He's the leader back there," Webb said. "He's our Joe Flacco. He puts everybody in a spot. That's where I'm trying to get to, where I can control everything, to get two quarterbacks in the back. Right now, that's what he's doing — he's putting everybody in the right spots, he's making sure all the checks are correct. He knows what he's doing."