Baltimore's corners, safeties are big-play performers

Baltimore's secondary has a pair of potential Hall of Famers who can't even crack the lineup.

Updated: August 9, 2005, 1:06 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

BALTIMORE -- Between them, Deion Sanders and Dale Carter have a dozen Pro Bowl appearances, 75 interceptions, two Super Bowl rings, a couple of rookie of the year honors and one defensive player of the year award.

And these guys are the backup cornerbacks in the Baltimore Ravens' secondary.

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Yeah, we know, the two cornerbacks also have a quarter-century of NFL experience, are well past their primes and are both on the wrong (and long) side of 35. Once among the premier cover cornerbacks in the league, their finest plays are mostly just fond memories now. They are experiencing the sobering reality of their football dotage.

But just the fact that the Baltimore secondary includes one sure-fire Hall of Fame member (assuming Sanders ever decides to retire for good and start the clock running on the five-year waiting period for induction), and one who might have been a candidate had Carter not succumbed to substance-abuse problems in his football prime, speaks to the overall quality of a unit that is certainly the league's deepest and arguably its best.

When I was in Tennessee, I thought we had an excellent [secondary], but I always felt like I was kind of 'The Man' there, you know? But here, I mean, it's like I'm just trying to fit in.
CB Samari Rolle
How good is the Baltimore secondary, a group that includes the reigning defensive player of the year, and three Pro Bowl-pedigree starters? Think about this: The secondary lost highly regarded cornerback Gary Baxter, who defected to Cleveland as an unrestricted free agent after years of being unfortunately overshadowed by his Ravens teammates, and it might be even better than it was a year ago.

"When I was in Tennessee, I thought we had an excellent [secondary], but I always felt like I was kind of 'The Man' there, you know?" said cornerback Samari Rolle, who was snatched up by the Ravens after he was released by the Titans for salary cap considerations and after Baxter exited. "But here, I mean, it's like I'm just trying to fit in. You look around even when we're just doing drills in camp, and think, 'Wow!' It makes your head spin."

Much of the attention paid to the Baltimore defense in the early stages of camp has been directed to the front seven, and justifiably so, given the dramatic overhaul promulgated by first-year coordinator Rex Ryan. After three seasons in a 3-4 front, the Ravens will go back to a 4-3 alignment in 2005, and Ryan has installed elements of the "46" scheme that his famous father, Buddy Ryan, created to terrorize offenses in the mid '80s. There are significant alterations in terms of responsibility and personnel in the front seven group, with three new starters or players lined up in new positions.

But while the old cigarette advertisement adage that "it's what's upfront that counts" still holds true for the Baltimore defense, the Ravens' secondary is the unit most apt to draw the bulk of the plaudits -- as it should. It is a secondary unit, even some opponents agree, of primary brilliance.

"They don't give you anything and there just isn't much room out there to make a play," said veteran Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell after a Saturday afternoon scrimmage against the Ravens here. "Every one of those guys is a tremendous individual player. As a group, yeah, they are even stronger. It probably is the best [secondary] in the league."

Rolle will team with two-time Pro Bowl performer Chris McAlister, perhaps the most physical cornerback in the NFL, to give the Ravens a superb outside tandem. Last season's player of the year, strong safety Ed Reed, pairs up with underrated free safety Will Demps to comprise a great interior duet.

Sanders and Carter, who missed the entire 2004 season after doctors discovered a life-threatening blood clot in his lung, will split the nickel and dime responsibilities. Fourth-year veteran safety Chad Williams, who has appeared in all 16 games in each of his first three NFL seasons, is a squatly built big hitter with decent range, as indicated by his three interceptions in limited playing time last season.

For a unit that helped the Ravens to a No. 10 statistical ranking versus the pass in 2004, and whose all-around excellence was highlighted by Reed's huge season, things might be even better this time around. The secondary accounted for 18 of the team's 21 pickoffs in 2004, and only the Seattle secondary (21) had more interceptions. The Ravens' secondary had four interception returns for touchdowns in 2004 and defensive end Jarrett Johnson added a fifth. The Atlanta secondary was the only unit to equal Baltimore's four scores. Reed's league-high nine thefts equaled or bettered the interception totals of four teams' entire defenses.

And it's obvious that Reed's big-play mentality -- he broke the league's 43-year-old record for interception return yards in 2004, with 358, including a 106-yard runback for a touchdown -- has become contagious. A quarterback as a youngster, Reed conceded he wasn't very good at throwing the ball, but he's become accomplished at stepping in front of it, and then running a long way with his purloined passes. In one early camp practice last week, Reed had three pickoffs.

"You always want to build on what you accomplished [the previous] year," Reed said after a Saturday scrimmage against the Redskins. "People say, 'Well, after last season, how can you top that?' I guess we'll have to wait and see. But I know that it's possible for me to play even better."

Said Sanders, whose nine career interception returns for touchdowns are second most in NFL history, and who scored on one of his three interceptions in 2004: "[Reed] definitely sets the big-play tone. He's so smart, because he studies the game so hard, and he leads by example. And when he gets the ball in his hands, he knows the way to the house. We all feed off that."

It is, to be sure, a secondary hungry for success and motivated by the acknowledgements that it is the NFL's premier back line of defense.

Chris McAlister
Cornerback
Baltimore Ravens
Profile
2004 SEASON STATISTICS
Tot Ast Solo FF Sack Int
42 38 4 0 0 1

McAlister, good enough to have drawn the franchise designation from the Ravens in the past, is clearly one of the top two or three corners in the league. During a brilliant seven-game stretch two years ago, McAlister held some of the game's top wideouts to an average of fewer than three catches and 40 yards per game. He had only one interception in 2004 -- and, in fact, has had just one in three of the last four years -- but that's because opposition quarterbacks simply refuse to throw at him now. There are few corners any tougher than the physically imposing McAlister (6-foot-1, 207 pounds), whose initial jam can stop a receiver in his tracks.

Right on cue in Saturday's scrimmage, in his introduction to the home crowd, Rolle posted a pickoff, as he roamed deep up the sideline and then outjumped Washington wide receiver James Thrash for the ball during a seven-on-seven drill. Rolle registered 23 interceptions in his seven seasons in Tennessee and, while not quite as physical as the departed Baxter, might have purer cover skills.

Demps, the most underrated of the starters, is a player poised to emerge as a big-time talent, and his ascent figures to be further prompted by the installation of the new 46 defense. In the 46 look, the free safety is a key, often asked to drop down into "the box," close to the line of scrimmage, to either stuff the run or blitz. It is a hybrid-type position, equal parts safety and linebacker, and a dramatic departure for Demps, who in the past played a centerfield position, well off the line of scrimmage.

A fourth-year veteran unearthed by general manager Ozzie Newsome's scouting staff as an undrafted free agent in 2002, Demps had a career-best 86 tackles in 2004. Look for that number to approach 100 stops in 2005 and for Demps, who has only 10 takeaways in three seasons, to make more individual game-altering plays.

"Around here," Demps said, "if you're not making plays, you feel like you aren't holding up your end. It's expected of you. What [Reed] did last year kind of raised the bar. Even before that, though, our expectations were high. Now they're even higher."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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