At the midpoint of the preseason, the Baltimore Ravens recent vulnerability at cornerback remains.
None of the projected starters have provided an impetus for confidence that the pass defense will improve this season. Poor play from the corners could easily derail the Ravens playoff aspirations. The 2016 schedule features many of the best receivers in the entire NFL and the Ravens pass defense will be challenged on a weekly basis.
Beginning with Jimmy Smith, the Ravens big money number one corner, the season has gotten off to a rocky start. Smith has seen limited snaps in preseason games after having foot surgery in the offseason. However, Smith has been beaten for big plays in practice more than the team would like from a player with shutdown ability.
Shareece Wright, the projected starter opposite Smith, has not been sharp in either preseason game. Wright was targeted often with great success against Carolina and Indianapolis. After signing a 3-year $13 million contract in March, Wright still has plenty to prove.
Free agent acquisition Jerraud Powers was penciled in as the first-string slot cornerback after snaring several interceptions in OTAs. Over the first two preseason games, Powers has struggled in coverage on the inside as well as tackling. Without improvement, he could continue the Ravens recent tradition of signing ineffective veteran defensive backs.
In the first quarter on Saturday, the Ravens first team defense allowed Andrew Luck to march down the field on consecutive drives. This followed up an underwhelming performance against the Panthers first team offense in the first preseason contest. On the positive side, the defense has toughened up in the red zone, allowing one first quarter touchdown while creating several drive-ending turnovers.
The Ravens pass rush has been mediocre so far in the preseason. However, the pass rush will receive a boost as Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil return to the field. These two potent edge rushers will benefit the entire defensive front by drawing attention away from disruptive three-technique Timmy Jernigan and others. Za’Darius Smith and Matt Judon have also displayed pass-rushing prowess in the preseason.
Ravens secondary coach Leslie Frazier has not been able to correct the technique issues overnight, but the Ravens do have some causes for optimism at corner. The roster boasts better depth than in recent seasons. Young corners Will Davis, Sheldon Price and Maurice Canady have all shown flashes of competent coverage ability. And the new safety duo of Eric Weddle and Lardarius Webb should stabilize the back end, minimize chunk plays allowed by the corners.
Still, the Ravens corners has to find a way to get off the field on third down more consistently. If not, the pass defense will put undue pressure on other facets of the team, forcing the Ravens to commit more players to pass defense that could leave them vulnerable to rushing attacks. The Ravens run defense personnel is not as strong as usual, with questions at defensive end and at strong-side outside linebacker. Struggling corners would also impact the Ravens offensive flexibility, creating a situation where the Ravens offense must forcefully establish the run to maintain a favorable time-of-possession ratio.
Ravens fans should settle in for more "bend don’t break" defense in 2016. The corners as a whole are not talented enough to utilize an aggressive coverage scheme. That is not a terrible development, the Ravens did win a Super Bowl with this more passive style of defense.
Bottom line, the pass defense must end more drives with turnovers while holding the opposition to mostly field goals in the red zone. The blueprint for success is the Ravens 2012 postseason run - a consistent passing offense coupled with timely defensive turnovers.
The Ravens offense is robust enough to overcome bending, not breaking.