Losing future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, some have questioned how well the Baltimore Ravens will be able to defend their Super Bowl title. The loss of Lewis and Reed, of course, is heightened by free agent defections by linebackers Paul Kruger (Cleveland Browns) and Dannell Ellerbe (Miami Dolphins), as well.
If the Ravens' second preseason game is any indication, however, the defense is in good hands with the club's first two picks from the 2013 draft class -- safety Matt Elam and inside linebacker Arthur Brown.
As he did in his debut last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Elam came off the bench in Thursday night's game against the Atlanta Falcons, backing up veteran James Ihedigbo at strong safety. Once the 5-10, 210-pound Elam got on the field, however, he quickly made an impression, catching 6-2, 240-pound Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson twisting for more yardage and emphatically driving him into the ground late in the first quarter. He tapped Julio Jones for another "tackle" a play later and showed good balance to trip up Jacquizz Rodgers on the next series.
Perhaps the best indication of the trust Baltimore is developing in its 2013 first rounder came moments later when he was matched up one on one with playmaking slot receiver Harry Douglas as the Ravens attacked Matt Ryan with a zone blitz. With veteran cornerback Corey Graham tipping his hand with a premature rush toward the line of scrimmage, Ryan backed up and barked new signals, perhaps alerting Douglas of the anticipated matchup against a rookie safety. Ryan did target Douglas, lofting a deep pass down the seam but with Elam in excellent position to defend anything less than a perfect pass, the ball fell incomplete.
Elam made several impressive plays Thursday night but he may have been out of position on a touchdown pass from Ryan to Julio Jones. Cornerback Jimmy Smith had primary coverage duty on Jones but seemed to be surprised that he did not have more help on the inside when the Falcons' star wideout made the reception over the middle.
Brown, similarly, made some splashy plays to indicate that his time as a backup in Baltimore may not last long.
While he came off the bench behind veterans Daryl Smith and Josh Bynes, Brown showed impressive fluidity when dropping into coverage on passing downs and teamed with Elam to give the Ravens back-to-back tackles for loss as the Falcons were threatening to score in the second quarter.
The 6-1, 242-pound Brown sliced through the defense to stop Rodgers for an unassisted 6-yard loss on second and nine from the 14-yard line. His recognition and burst put him in position to stop Rodgers again after a quick screen thrown by backup quarterback Dominique Davis. Rodgers was able to squirt free from Brown's arm-tackle but the linebacker's ability to slow the play gave Elam and a host of other Ravens' defenders time to close. Elam was officially given credit for the 4-yard loss (which forced Atlanta to kick a field goal), but it was Brown's anticipation and athleticism that made the play.
It goes without saying that no rookies are going to replace what the Ravens lost in Lewis and Reed. In fact, with a team as deep as the Ravens, it may take some time for Elam and Brown just to emerge as starters. While the rookies made some splashy individual plays, the Ravens surrendered a frightening 338 yards and 23 points through three quarters against Atlanta. Baltimore, on the other hand, scored just seven points and had 166 total yards at this point. Elam's night (5.5 tackles, including the tackle for loss) ended midway through the third quarter. Brown, however, remained on the field into the final quarter and finished with three solo stops.