Darrelle Revis isn't the only star corner returning from a season ending knee injury. With the return of Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb, the NFL may very well be seeing the return of both the No. 1 and No. 2 corners in the league respectively. For the defending champion Baltimore Ravens, getting back Webb is akin to getting back multiple players. Check into Uptown's film school to see how Webb may be the proverbial straw that stirs the drink to a revamped, and ferocious Ravens defense.
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Pardon me if you've heard this one before. The Ravens have lost so much talent, especially on defense, that it will be tough for them to be factor in 2013 season. Well to borrow a quote from a popular early 90's hip-hop song, "Don't believe the hype!"
Sure, the Ravens lost veteran leadership on both sides of the ball. But that leadership was mostly present during a horrendous skid as a team that saw the Ravens lose three crucial games in a row when they were looking to clinch a division title, and grab hold of a coveted playoff spot. In addition, the team finished a very un-Raven like 17th in total defense (17th against the pass, and 20th against the run). Winning a Super Bowl can temporarily mask deficiencies, (that's an understatement!) but it was clear that a tweak in personnel was very much needed.
With the major turnover the Ravens roster has endured, it can be argued that, on paper, the Ravens may be a much better team in the present, as well as the future. An influx of good to great personnel, blended with a roster already entrenched with young talent, topped off by some of very best veteran talent at their respective positions, goes a long way to support my aforementioned theory. As excited as Ravens fans are about drafting college stars such as former Florida safety Matt Elam, and ex-Kansas State Wildcat linebacker Arthur Brown, or even the acquisition of sack-master Elvis Dumervil, it's the return of Webb that may tie everything in together. And he's extra motivated to earn his keep.
Lardarius Webb, at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, is as versatile as you will find in a football player. This wasn't necessarily the case early on his career.
Webb was a third-round draft pick out of Nicholls State. After transferring from So. Miss, Webb first garnered attention on the scouting scene when he became the first player in FCS history to be named player of the week on offense, defense, as well as special teams -- in the same season! I remember seeing highlights of a thin and wiry, yet physical, player in one of those under the radar packages for draft eligible prospects. His highlight tape instantly reminded me of a young Asante Samuel (currently of the Atlanta Falcons). He operated best in space whether it was playing in zone or off-man coverage. His ball skills and hands were unparalleled at the position. He certainly looked like a draftable commodity despite playing against 'lower level' competition.
In the 2009 pre-draft combine, Webb put on a show athletically with a 36.5 inch vertical jump, in addition to a combine leading (for cornerbacks) 4.46 in the 40-yard dash. These attributes all but cemented him being drafted in the first few rounds of the upcoming draft, a premonition turned reality as the Ravens selected him in the third round, 88th overall.
In his first couple of years in the NFL, he was more of a project than a prospect. His athleticism was apparent, but his technique and overall corner acumen left a lot to be desired. His inconsistencies may have only been overshadowed by his splash-play ability. With the personnel being very sparse at corner, Webb stood out off those characteristics alone. An ACL tear in Week 15 put an end to a promising rookie season which saw Webb prove his relevancy mostly through special teams. His 918 yards on 35 kickoffs (one TD) was something of note. If he could refine his corner skills, the Ravens may knew they have gotten the steal of that particular draft.
His second season definitely marked an improvement as he got more playing time. I personally got to view Webb in a game here in Atlanta, as the Ravens took on the Falcons in a Thursday night showcase game.
Webb had the unenviable task of covering one of the league's best receivers in Roddy White. White quickly showed Webb that he had a long way to go to be mentioned among the best corners in the game.
On one particular drive the Falcons focused exclusively on the White-Webb matchup. Here's a particular play that stood out. White is running an out out-route with Webb in press-man.
We can see the lack of confidence in Webb by his stance. He's not far enough forward on his feel to achieve maximum power with the jam, at this point it would be an 'all arms' press.
The mechanics foreshadowed the results in this situation. Webb lunges forward with his arms and gets 'swimmed' by White. This is the worst case scenario as all of Webb's momentum is going in completely the wrong direction.
Immediately Webb is in F.E.M.A. style recovery mode, and is not in a position to alter the play. You can almost see the panic on his face.
At this point the Ravens are glad they have Ed Reed helping over the top to limit this from being worse than it could potentially be.
Webb gives it his best shot. But White grabs the pass anyway.
This was one of the worst showings of Webb's young career at that point. He was torched repeatedly so bad on that drive that he was benched in favor of Fabian Washington going forward in that particular game. White finished that game with 12 catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns. I believe that one showing on national TV may have been the launching point for Webb going forward. Going against the elite in the NFL can do that for you. I noticed the improvement in Webb the remainder of the 2010 season. He finished with 52 tackles and two interceptions, to go along with nine passes defensed. It was clear that his career trajectory was trending upward.
The 2011 season marked the official coming out party for Webb. He seemed to have a certain bounce in his step, which allowed him to play a lot looser. He once again played with a swagger that was very reminiscent of Asante Samuel.As a corner his technique looked extremely solid.
His trademark off-man coverage was his bread & butter. He was spectacular in zone coverage as well. And most importantly, his press technique had become solid from top to bottom. The Ravens took advantage of his skill-set and improved technique. He often got to play the slot corner which is a whole 'nother animal for those who've played the position. As an outside corner, you have an extra co-defender, that being the sideline. That allows but for so many routes to be run to the boundary side of the field. As a slot defender, it's nothing but space and opportunity. It takes a special player to excel at the outside where most of the top receivers reside, I believe it takes extreme agility and a high mental aptitude to excel on the inside. All attributes that permeate the Webb's makeup.
As we can see, Webb's press technique finally got up to snuff. He's using the correct hand to jam the correct shoulder. And his overall confidence may be the key to that.
You'd be hard pressed to find a harder press than this! (See what I did there?!?) Webb stops the receiver dead in his tracks which in turn throws off the timing of the route.
The thing that I really like about Webb's style is his use of the 5 yard rule. Webb stays physical throughout the allotted area without going overboard on the physicality. He's obviously being coached well. Here he tracks the ball as soon as the receiver looks. An art that seems to be lost on a lot of corners these days. It's one thing to be in position to make the play...It's another to actually know so!
I believe the hard press technique threw off the depth of the receivers route. Even with that said, Webb makes a spectacular catch displaying his top notch ball skills in the process. Being that well-rounded is rare in this day and age.
A closer look. Webb high-points the ball and shows he's a natural hands catcher. He played this as about as well as it could be played. And this was done from the slot no less. Let's have a look at Webb on the outside in zone coverage.
- Webb in zone coverage against Braylon Edwards
Here we have Webb giving a 7 yard cushion to a much larger receiver in Braylon Edwards. Zone principles are a little different because they're designed to keep the play in front of you. In press-man, you're meant to sort of trail the play. So as you can see he get's to read the QB's eyes from the start. Asante Samuel is the best zone defender in the league. I believe Webb may be his equal here very shortly.
As soon as the ball is snapped Webb bails in anticipation of a deep route. He has great mechanics as he positions himself to where he can view the QB while retreating. This is harder than you think!
One of his better attributes is his ability to stay in the hop pocket of the receiver. Though only 185 pounds, Webb is an extremely physical receiver which differentiates him from more a of a finesse guy like Asante Samuel.
Webb bodies Edwards which in turns boxes him out from the ball. It's as though when the ball is in the air, Webb becomes the receiver as well.
The results are in his favor as he makes the interception. Great technique can make these type of plays easier to come by. Webb is the master at preparation and it shows every Sunday.
In 2011, Webb had regular season career highs across the board. If his 67 tackles, 20 pass deflections, five interceptions, one forced fumble, one sack, and two return touchdowns. But he didn't merit All-Pro status. His subsequent three postseason interceptions, along with five pass deflections most certainly put him in the players to be watched category. Webb went from being a prospect on the Ravens defense, to perhaps it's most effective. And that's a lot to be said considering the amount of talent throughout that unit.
Another way Webb found his niche was through punt returns. The Ravens used him as kick returner in his initial season, but switched him to punts each subsequent season. His 30 attempts for 301 yards (10.0 avg) in 2011 proved this to be a great move.
- Webb returning a punt vs the Browns
To be a good punt returner you have to have guts, agility and vision. But first and foremost you have to be able to make the gunner miss. Here Webb catches is with enough time to implement what he wants to do. Webb in the open-field is a handful for anyone in the league. This gunner happens to be one of the best in the league in former Browns special teams ace Joshua Cribbs.
He breaks Cribbs ankles quick, fast, and in a hurry. Now it's time to find those running lanes. Returning punts is not unlike being a running back. The hole is aligning perfectly for Webb, he just has to see it.
He exhausts that hole and get another back that springs another hole. He sees that as well.
After you've broken enough ankles and followed your blocking, then it becomes a foot race. A foot race in which Webb should win 9 out 10 times.
You have to have the innate ability to feel defenders in the back of you. Or you can simply look up at the jumbotron! Webb chooses the latter in this situation.
Once you've made a game-changing play like returning a punt for a TD, it's time to style in profile. Webb chooses to soar through the air like a plane. Nice choice!!
Webb seemed to be performing in 2012 as he did the prior season. Cementing that 2011 was going to be the first of many Pro-Bowl level type seasons as a lockdown corner and punt returner. Through five games Webb totaled 25 tackles, six pass deflections, one interception, and one forced fumble (and recovery). The Ravens as a team were riding high with a 4-1 record. Then in the sixth game, Webb tore an ACL for the second time. The rest, they say, is history. The Ravens rode a roller coaster ride in the results column, which featured the firing of longtime offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. The defense, due to a myriad of injuries, was average at best and getting a bit long in the tooth.
But everything came together at the right time, as both units played well in the postseason all the way to a Super Bowl victory (which I predicted the previous offseason, too bad they didn't play the Atlanta Falcons to complete my prediction).
Moving forward the Ravens have a tough road to trek. They must fight the perception that they've lost too many veterans. And the recent injury to tight end Dennis Pitta won't help in that aspect. I maintain that, on paper, the Ravens' personnel may be even better. Especially defensively. The Ravens went through a transformation where they wanted to rely on their explosive offense as the face of the team. I believe the Ravens will eventually re-transition back into being a ferocious defense as the team's mantra. And it may very well start with getting back a healthy Lardarius Webb.
But I must stress that Webb is coming off a torn ligament in his knee and treating the situation as if it's minute would be irresponsible on my part. If Webb is able to recapture what he was building on before the injury, the Ravens could have one of their scariest defenses in a long time. How's that for an encore?
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