New-look Ravens secondary ready to make its mark
— 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-
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
Baltimore Ravens safety Eric Weddle joined the team as a free agent.