EARLY IN the off-season, Ravens defensive assistants Clarence Brooks and Ted Monachino put all of their linemen and linebackers through what the team called Pass Rush School. Fundamentals of hand placement, paths to the quarterback, footwork and coordinating moves with teammates on the rush were among the lessons taught and retaught. "We tried to be great teachers of the basic mechanics of the rush," says defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. "Sometimes, when you draft a guy to rush the passer and he had great success in college, you think, O.K., we got ourselves a pass rusher. But it's not that easy. The guy has to continue to grow to get to the quarterback in this league."
There was a reason for the defensive staff's new curriculum: This year there is no Super Bowl contender with a weakness at one position as glaring as Baltimore's is at cornerback. The team's top corner, Domonique Foxworth, is out for the season with a right ACL tear, meaning the starters are Raiders reject Fabian Washington, 27, and a second-year player from Nicholls State, Lardarius Webb, who are both trying to rebound from late-2009 ACL surgery. (Both Washington and Webb are expected to be ready come Week 1.) With those question marks in the defensive backfield, the Ravens' front seven will have to graduate Pass Rush School quickly—and with flying colors.
Under former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, Baltimore deployed the league's most exotic blitz packages—four rushers over one gap, for instance—and the reward was usually worth the risk. (From 2005 through '08 the team ranked second in total defense.) But because the Ravens are not inclined to strand Washington and Webb on islands without safety support, the team will be unable to rely on the blitz as much. With the NFL's growing emphasis on the throwing game (teams averaged a healthy 35.4 pass plays a game last year), Mattison & Co. know that they'll be exposing their subpar corners in man coverage whenever they do.
"We have to be relentless in both the four- and three-man rush this year," says defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. "We don't want to leave our corners without help. We've all got to rush better without blitzing."
The problem at corner is exacerbated by the health of safety Ed Reed, who turns 32 on Sept. 11, is coming off surgery on his hip and has a chronic neck problem. He spent the early days of training camp not practicing but rather shuttling between camp in Westminster, Md., and his hip rehab specialist in Atlanta. Desperate for secondary help, Baltimore scouted every team in person the first two weeks of the preseason. The staff made a depth chart of the league's backup corners, dusted off college reports on players they liked two and three drafts ago and looked to see if any were worth pursuing in a trade.
Some of the pressure, regardless of any late-preseason roster shuffling, will fall on veteran cornerback Chris Carr. But he's had 10 career starts in five seasons with Oakland, Tennessee and Baltimore, and at 5'10" he'd be in over his head if asked to start for a prolonged period. "I don't know what everyone's saying about us, and it doesn't matter," Carr says. "I watch the History Channel and HBO, not sports. But I think we're a good secondary, and we have a chance to be elite. We had the eighth-rated pass defense in the league last year with all the injuries we put up with. We're a confident group, whatever outsiders think of us."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh agrees. "We don't need a Revis Island kind of guy here," he says, referring to the Jets shutdown cornerback, Darrelle Revis. "We need good players at the position playing at the top of their game. The only thing I'm worried about—say, with a guy like Lardarius Webb—is that a guy might be back playing, but will he be back playing as explosively and confidently as he did right away?"
Over the last decade Baltimore's defense has always played aggressively, with a chip on its collective shoulder. It's been rare that an offensive coordinator has studied the Ravens and said he can see an obvious weakness. But they will get thrown on this year, and to be a playoff team they will need to win their share of shootouts. It's been a long time since Baltimore has entered a season thinking that way.
WITH 2009 STATS