One of the last things that Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees wants to see is deep passes completed against his players. So what happens in the first week of training camp?
Joe Flacco rediscovers his touch on downfield throws against the Ravens defense. Reducing big plays was a priority for the Ravens defense entering camp, and it's become a major point of emphasis since watching passes sail over the heads of defenders.
"Look, Joe's a hell of a quarterback," Pees said. "We've got a hell of a group of receivers. We're going to see a hell of a group of receivers all year. It's going to happen. They're going to throw some comebacks on you. They're going to throw some balls underneath. What we can't do is give up balls over the top. I'm a little disappointed in the first few days. We've got to do better than that."
To put in perspective how much big passing plays hurt the Ravens, their defense ranked in the bottom three in the league in completion percentage, completions and touchdowns allowed on throws that traveled in the air for at least 40 yards.
The Ravens watched quarterbacks complete over half of those 40 yard-plus passes -- 53.8 percent, to be exact -- on their secondary. They gave up seven completions on such throws (only the New York Jets and Detroit Lions allowed more), including four that went for touchdowns (which tied the Jets for most in the NFL).
"The one thing everybody's disappointed in is the big plays," secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "The one thing about having the responsibility of being in the secondary, whether you're coaching or playing in it, is ultimately on a pass play that is deep, it falls on those guys. We take it personally. We talked about it this morning, as a matter of fact -- the pride of not giving up deep pass completions, even out here in practice. We don't want to do that. I told the guys we don't care if it's a walk-through, a jog-through or full speed -- you don't want to allow it."
The Ravens' secondary has changed since last season. They didn't re-sign safety James Ihedigbo and currently have Darian Stewart penciled in as the replacement. Corey Graham, the No. 3 cornerback last season, is also gone, and there's a battle between Chykie Brown, Asa Jackson and Dominique Franks to fill that spot.
Despite the changes, the returning players say communication and continuity won't be a problem.
"Honestly, I think the chemistry with our back end already is better than it was last year in training camp with the new guys, to me," cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "We understand each other, we talk, and [Spagnuolo] does a great job in meetings. He takes time in meetings to make sure everybody gets what we're doing, and everybody can work off each other. That makes all of our defensive players, our DBs at least, communicate a lot better and be more focused on details and the right technique more than on your talent, or how fast you are.”
Giving up big plays has been a bad trend for the Ravens defense. Some might assume the biggest problem was not bringing back Ed Reed after the Super Bowl season. But the Ravens actually gave up more passes over 40 yards (nine) in 2012 than they did last season.
The Ravens will get tested early. Their season opening opponent is Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who led the NFL last season with seven completions on throws that traveled at least 40 yards in the air.
How will the Ravens cut down on the big plays? By using their eyes better.
"If you're in man coverage, your eyes are on your man until he's running down the sideline, then you can turn and look for the ball. If you're playing zone, you've got to read your quarterback and feel the guy in your vision," Pees said. "We're not making mental mistakes. When we get beat deep, generally it's your eyes."