New-look Ravens sec­ondary ready to make its mark

Cecil Whig - - SPORTS - By JOR­DAN SCHATZ

jschatz@ce­cil­whig.com

— While Lar­dar­ius Webb is used to de­fend­ing passes as a mem­ber of the Bal­ti­more Ravens sec­ondary, this year he’ll be cov­er­ing re­ceivers from a dif­fer­ent po­si­tion.

The eight-year vet­eran made the un­ortho­dox tran­si­tion from cor­ner­back to safety this off­sea­son as the Ravens over­haul a sec­ondary unit that strug­gled might­ily in 2016. Bal­ti­more al­lowed a fran­chise-worst 30 pass­ing touch­downs last sea­son, while the six forced in­ter­cep­tions ranked last in the NFL.

Webb, who played safety in col­lege, had only lined up at cor­ner­back since en­ter­ing the NFL in 2009. He joins three-time Pro Bowl safety Eric Wed­dle, who signed with the Ravens as a free agent fol­low­ing nine sea­sons with the San Diego Charg­ers.

For­mer first-round se­lec­tion Jimmy Smith will once again fea­ture as the team’s No. 1 cor­ner­back, while cor­ner­back Sha­reece Wright, who came to the Ravens last mid-sea­son as a free agent, has been re-signed and is ex­pected to cover re­ceivers on the op­po­site side of the field.

The team will also have new di­rec­tion un­der newly-hired sec­ondary coach Les­lie Fra­zier. Fra­zier, the for­mer head coach of the Min­nesota Vik­ings (2011-13), spent last sea­son as the Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor.

“I spent the off­sea­son through­out OTAs and Phase One and Phase Two, try­ing to get a good feel for our play­ers by watch­ing tape of their pre­vi­ous per­for­mances, and also the things we did on the field with them in the spring,” Fra­zier said. “I just fo­cused on try­ing to de­velop [our] re­la­tion­ship so I can coach them, and help them get bet­ter. That is the goal of ev­ery coach.”

Re­gard­ing the safeties, both Wed­dle and Webb worked to­gether dur­ing June’s manda­tory mini­camp. The duo of­fers the Ravens a pair of ath­letic play­mak­ers who pro­file more as deep­play­ing ball hawks than pro­to­typ­i­cal in-the-box strong safeties. The pair en­ter hav­ing com­bined for 31 ca­reer in­ter­cep­tions and four touch­downs.

“The two safeties in­ter­act very well. Eric is the more ex­pe­ri­enced player back there, as far as call­ing the de­fenses, so Lar­dar­ius de­fers. But Lar­dar­ius knows the de­fense well and is do­ing a good job of com­mu­ni­cat­ing,” Ravens head coach John Har­baugh said. “As far as the tra­di­tional no­tion of safety and hav­ing the box guy and the deep guy – there’s some­thing to that. If you have those types of guys, you’re go­ing to have to build your de­fense around those guys. But there is re­ally some­thing to be said about hav­ing two ath­letes back there that can move and make plays. We feel it is re­ally im­por­tant for us to have guys back there that can make plays on the ball.”

Webb doesn’t ex­pect any dif­fi­culty re-

OWINGS MILLS

turn­ing to the po­si­tion where he twice earned All-Amer­i­can hon­ors while at­tend­ing Ni­cholls State Univer­sity.

“To me it was nat­u­ral. I al­ways played safety. I was a safety in col­lege all my life. I never re­ally played cor­ner un­til I got to the NFL,” Webb said. “To get back to my nat­u­ral po­si­tion, be able to read the quar­ter­back and make some plays, I’m ex­cited. To be able to do it still here with the Bal­ti­more Ravens makes it even more in­ter­est­ing.”

Wed­dle pro­vides the de­fen­sive back­field a sta­bil­ity and lead­er­ship role its lacked since fu­ture Hall of Famer Ed Reed left the Ravens fol­low­ing the team’s Su­per Bowl cham­pi­onship in 2012.

The duo will re­place last year’s start­ing safeties Ken­drick Lewis and Will Hill. The Ravens re­leased Hill in the off­sea­son just prior to the safety re­ceiv­ing a 10-game sus­pen­sion from the NFL, while Lewis is ex­pected to con­trib­ute off the bench.

“I’m learn­ing so much from [Wed­dle]. He’s a great leader. He’s our [quar­ter­back] on the de­fense. He keeps ev­ery­thing go­ing. [He is] an awe­some guy—awe­some locker room guy. He’s great in meet­ings. I can’t speak enough great things about the guy.

“I’m just happy to have him here to make us bet­ter,” Webb con­tin­ued. “A lot of guys are feed­ing off of his en­ergy. I’m bring­ing the same type of en­ergy. I’ve been here, and the guys look up to me also. So to have both of us back on the back end is big for the de­fense—for the team.”

For Smith and Wright, the upcoming sea­son will al­low a pair of best friends to share a full cam­paign to­gether.

“How many peo­ple in the NFL have their best friend start­ing on the same team with them?” Smith asked. “We talked about about this last year, it’s kind of like a dream to talk about it and then to ac­tu­ally live it out is just great.”

Smith ad­mit­ted to be­ing rusty dur­ing train­ing camp but 100 per­cent healthy af­ter he played most of 2016 with lin­ger­ing foot pain. The team’s 2011 firstround se­lec­tion suf­fered a bro­ken foot in 2014 and un­der­went surgery this off­sea­son to re­move screws from the in­jured area.

He an­tic­i­pates a strong sea­son, both for him­self and the much-ma­ligned sec­ondary.

“That just gives us a chip,” Smith said of the crit­i­cism. “You guys write your sto­ries and it’s not like we don’t hear it, so we’re go­ing to play with a chip on our shoul­der. We see what peo­ple say, we see where we’re ranked, but we know what type of group we have. We know what we can do and we know what we’re ca­pa­ble of.

“I thin this year we’re go­ing to prove peo­ple wrong.”

Fol­low Jor­dan Schatz on Twit­ter: @Jor­dan_Whig

CE­CIL WHIG PHOTO BY JOR­DAN SCHATZ

Bal­ti­more Ravens safety Eric Wed­dle joined the team as a free agent.

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