After taking care of the Tennessee Titans in dominant fashion, the Ravens were treated to a nice bye week that saw them bumped up to 3rd in the standings.  Any player who had been feeling banged up is likely feeling close to 100% healthy.  Not only that, but getting a Monday night game after a bye is essentially a 15 day break.  Every little bit counts.

The Ravens have had plenty of time to prepare for their opponent, the 4-6 New Orleans Saints, and we should expect that.  Sure, some new starters have had to come in while filling in for injuries, especially in the defensive backfield.  This break was appropriately timed to get the newer starters up to speed.

Safety Will Hill will be in his third game since coming off of suspension.  He’s been well regarded for his athleticism and natural talents for a safety.  If he hadn’t been given an 8 game suspension, the Ravens would have had no chance of getting such a talent.  We should soon see if the signing was in fact a major bargain.

In hindsight, for many, the Ravens should have been aggressive in obtaining as many quality cornerbacks as possible before the season started to compensate for these injuries to Jimmy Smith & Asa Jackson.  For me, I find that the Ravens did an even better job at retaining so many safeties.

Anthony Levine is a safety but has been starting in the cornerback spot for Jimmy since his injury.  The Ravens have 2nd year player Matt Elam, rookie Terrance Brooks, Darian Stewart, Levine, and Will Hill all getting reps & playing time throughout the season in the safety positions.  Since, once again, teams have been increasing the amount of passing compared to rushing for their offense, defenses league wide have to adjust.  The major importance put on the safeties by the Ravens appears to be their adjustment.

There was a time not too long ago where safeties weren’t well regarded nor compensated well on defense.  Despite the presence of players like Ed Reed and, yes, even Troy Polamalu, it was the cornerbacks who were still regarded as the only line of defense against passing and have been well paid.  “Shutdown corner” is a label given to cornerbacks that teams covet like mad.  There has never been a “shutdown safety” label, even though their basic job is to shut down the quarterback’s passes.

No cornerback is perfect in any game.  Good quarterbacks look for mistakes in the defense and exploit them the best they can.  If a corner decides to cover one receiver over another, someone has to pick up that slack.  The biggest pass plays you have ever seen tend to happen when there is no safety back to defend.  A cornerback is only as good as his safety.

Think about a player like Nnamdi Asomugha, who was considered a shutdown corner and one of the best in the league.  He only became widely known starting around 2009 or so.  His time on the Raiders ended when he was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2011 offseason.  He was one of the many pieces of the oft-mocked “Dream Team” 2011 Eagles.  He barely stayed over a year and retired in 2013.

What’s important to note is his cast of players.  He was drafted way back in 2003 but only became prominent a few years before 2011.  I decided to look up the Raiders’ rosters and sure enough, they had good safeties.  One that jumped out at me was Tyvon Branch.  Now, I’m sure you haven’t exactly heard his name before, especially with such an easy to remember first name.  He was drafted in 2008 and had a breakout season in ’09 as his first full season as a starter, heading to the Pro Bowl.  What is interesting to note is that both he and Asomugha were going to the Pro Bowl for two straight years together in 2009 & 2010.

On Philadelphia, looking at their 2011 roster, they were stacked at cornerback.  Not only did they sign Asomugha, but they also picked up Asante Samuel & Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as well.  They picked up three cornerbacks, each of whom can be the #1 starter on just about any team.  So what went wrong?

Well their safeties weren’t that good.  A lot of them I had never heard of before today.  Players like Nate Allen, Jaiquawn Jarrett, Colt Anderson, and Kurt Colemon.  The last guy, Colemon, actually had one very productive game with 3 interceptions against the Redskins which snapped a 4 game losing streak for the Eagles.  Everyone mentioned had been drafted in 2010 except for Jarrett, who was drafted in 2011.  Colt Anderson was having the best season out of the four, but he was doing so on special teams.

For an example relating to the Ravens, consider the impression of Jimmy Smith before and after Ed Reed.  When Reed was still patrolling the back of the defense, Jimmy Smith was viewed as a disappointment.  When Reed left, Smith started to look like the shutdown corner Ozzie envisioned him to be.  While this sounds like an ironic contradiction to what I’ve spent numerous paragraphs on, just revisit what I wrote about with the Ravens/Titans matchup.

I described that the Titans had lost their identity & fear factor in running the ball when Chris Johnson left, just like the Ravens lost their identity & fear factor in defending the deep pass when Reed left.  Now, just like I prefaced this post, the biggest passing plays occur when there is no safety around to defend.  Without Reed, opposing quarterbacks treated us like we were missing a safety and our passing defense has suffered.  Although, they don’t throw towards the sidelines as much anymore, which are the main domain of the cornerbacks.  So, with lucky breaks combined with maturity in the system & less chances of giving up big plays, Jimmy Smith quickly turned from goat to G.O.A.T.

Part of this is players getting better in their football career and others just get better or worse when their responsibilities change.  There are countless examples of players with promise that suddenly become amazing as soon as something little changes.  We’re seeing right now Mark Sanchez become a better quarterback on the Eagles than he was on the Jets.  We’ve seen our own Justin Forsett thrive on our team after never starting in his 7 year career.  Of course, even James Harrison became a better defender when he left our practice squad as well.

Our opponent this week, Drew Brees, is no stranger to this.  Considered for his first three years on the Chargers to be a bust, he started to break out when Phillip Rivers was drafted and has become a future Hall of Famer in New Orleans.  He has completely changed New Orleans’ futures for the better while giving them their first Super Bowl win & massive mainstream sports media coverage.  He was able to start the change the year following Hurricane Katrina, which is excellent timing in helping rebuild New Orleans.

He hasn’t really been on his game this year which is reflected by his 4-6 record.  He still has the highest accuracy percentage for the season, but that isn’t enough apparently.  He is given extra cushion with the rushing attack being ranked 8th in the league.  But that doesn’t help the defense.

A year after having a top 5 defense, it seems that it was an illusion.  Their passing defense has lost them games and this can be prime time for Flacco to flex some muscle.  (fitting that it is a primetime game in the domed stadium that he won a Superbowl in)  Their defense is starting yet another safety due to injuries & benching.  It also doesn’t bode well that their top cornerback is out with injury.

Hard to gauge how this game will go, as this is a primetime game & an away game.  The players may have to shake off some rust following the bye and we may get an unproductive 1st quarter (hopefully not), which could be too disastrous to come back from.  Then again, on paper this looks like a good matchup for the Ravens to get the win.  Plus, this may be the toughest matchup for the Ravens for the rest of the season, as it gets progressively easy as the weeks go on.

The game will be this Monday (8:30pm) on both ESPN and on NBC locally.  Make sure to watch, as while this will probably be the last tough game for the Ravens this year, it may also be the most entertaining for the remaining games of the season.  Have a great weekend and go Ravens!