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Ravens dealing with several injuries, communication breakdowns in secondary

The Baltimore Sun

Ravens strong safety Matt Elam motioned with his hand in the opposite direction of the football as his eyes darted toward teammates trailing the play.

Elam appeared lost at how to react Sunday when he failed to touch Taylor Gabriel down after the Cleveland Browns' wide receiver burst past him, allowing extra yardage after an already long reception.

Confusion reigned in the Ravens' secondary during the 23-21 victory where Elam and teammates were frequently not on the same page. If cornerback Jimmy Smith doesn't hustle to make the tackle and prevent a touchdown following Gabriel's 70-yard reception in the fourth quarter and cornerback Asa Jackson doesn't block a field goal attempt four plays later, the game's outcome could have been different.

As the Ravens prepare for Sunday's game against a Carolina Panthers offense headlined by quarterback Cam Newton, the secondary is dealing with injuries (Smith's knee and ankles and Lardarius Webb's back) and with little time to fix their lack of communication.

"We gave up too many big plays. It was miscommunication, which were a big issue last year," Elam said. "I wasn't happy at all. I wasn't happy with my performance. I wasn't happy with our miscommunications."

On the play in question, it looked like Elam and cornerback Asa Jackson had a mix-up in responsibilities. Jackson ran with Gabriel initially as Elam bit on a play-action fake to former Towson running back Terrance West. When Jackson passed Gabriel off to Elam, Elam failed to transition to his new coverage assignment. That resulted in the second-longest play the Ravens have allowed through three games.

"Those are poor plays, not just by Matt, but by the whole group," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "As coaches, we take that personally. We feel like we didn't do a good enough job preparing guys."

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees didn't mince words Thursday when his players' comments about communication issues were relayed to him, slamming the door shut on that explanation.

"Well, 'miscommunication' would not be one of the words I would have used," Pees said. "I would have said, 'Very poor technique in the back end.' There's a couple of them [where] there wasn't any communication. Just line up and play your position. We were beat on a three-deep coverage that I don't know what the communication there is other than, 'Get your [butt] deep.' So, I would not go that route."

Ranked 16th in total defense (374.3 total yards per game) and 24th in pass defense (262.3 passing yards per game), the Ravens have allowed plenty of big plays through the air.

They've surrendered 11 receptions of 20 yards or more, including a 77-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green in a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals and a 43-yard reception to Browns wide receiver Travis Benjamin where Elam was beaten badly again. Elam was also flagged for pass interference, which set up a West touchdown run.

"Sure, it's all correctable," Pees said. "There wasn't anything Matt did that he can't correct. Sometimes, a guy goes up and makes a big catch over the top of you like A.J. Green or Calvin Johnson. You say, 'Hey, the guy got you.' But everything that happened to us on Sunday big-play wise is easily corrected, and it's got to be corrected."

The issues in pass coverage have been exacerbated by the lack of a pass rush. The Ravens have just three sacks, led by a pair of sacks by outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil. Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs doesn't have a sack this season and just one sack in his last 11 games going back to last season.

Addressing the mistakes has emerged as a hot-button issue heading into Sunday. A former Heisman Trophy winner, Newton has passed for 531 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

"The name of the game is not giving up big plays," Jackson said. "Those are the only things that lead to us getting beat. On the long pass to Gabriel, it was just a simple miscommunication. I should have stayed on my man instead of passing him off to Matt."

When Smith practiced Thursday after sitting out Wednesday with knee and ankle injuries that hobbled him against the Browns, it provided a sense of relief entering this game.

Without the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Smith to line up across from Panthers rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the Ravens could have a serious matchup problem. Benjamin is 6-foot-5, 240 pounds with excellent speed and leaping ability and already has 16 receptions for 253 yards and two touchdowns.

"Not only pivotal because of Benjamin, he's pivotal because he's a heck of a corner," Pees said said of Smith. "It's not like we have tremendous depth back there either, and we need everybody we can get whether it's against Carolina or against anybody coming up. Jimmy's one of our best players on defense, and it's important for us to have him on the field."

The Ravens have been shorthanded in the secondary all season with Webb struggling with a lingering lower back injury. Webb played just four snaps against the Browns before he was pulled because of a lack of mobility.

"The guy missed all of training camp," Pees said. "It's not his fault, it's not anybody's fault. We put him in the slot where we thought it's going to be easier on him than the outside and we found out really quick. He understands.

"When I saw it in the press box, I said, 'He's not there yet.' Game speed is faster than practice speed. There's no way to simulate it. He has to feel very confident that he can do it. That's half the battle playing the back end."

The confidence factor has clearly been an issue for Elam in intermediate to deep coverage. He's looked uncomfortable when he strays from the line of scrimmage where he routinely excels as a run-stopper operating almost like an extra linebacker. In recent weeks, Elam has had to frequently play nickel back and cover more because of injuries in the secondary.

"It all comes back to communicating," Elam said. "You have to know what we're doing and keep getting better. It's a long season. It's this league, and things happen. It's how you recover and bounce back. Ain't no worries."

awilson@baltsun.com

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