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Matt Elam Can Talk Off The Field, Working To Communicate On It

October 16, 2014

Ravens safety Matt Elam usually has no trouble communicating his intentions.

Last year, as Elam and his secondary teammates prepared for the challenge of covering Detroit Lions standout receiver Calvin Johnson, Elam described the tall, fast target as being "kind of old," even though Johnson was 28 at the time.

It was the kind of off-field bravado common in football, but to the Lions' credit, they seemed to chalk it up to youthful indiscretion. Elam was a first-round pick still adjusting to his rookie season. At the same time the Ravens were trying to prove themselves as worthy defending Super Bowl champions.

Though his words were careless, Elam backed them up as the Ravens held Johnson mostly in check Dec. 16, 2013, and ended up winning on a late field goal, 18-16, the kind of game that kept them in playoff contention until the season's final Sunday. In fact, it was Elam who sealed the win with an interception on the Lions' last-ditch drive.

For former free safety Elam, the adjustments have continued this year. He is playing more strong safety -- and even some nickel cornerback, due to injury issues within the unit -- while trying to tighten up a Ravens' secondary that has allowed 24 pass plays of 20 or more yards through the season's first six weeks.

Coverage and communication issues worsened to the point where the team's pass defense was ranked in the league's bottom third, despite a 4-2 start to the team's 2014 campaign.

The 5-foot-10, 200-pound Elam has been in the middle of some of those issues, which have allowed opponents to strike for big plays that plagued them last season.

"It's all about communicating and knowing what you're doing," Elam said. "I just feel like we have to get better every day and continue to get better. It's a long season, so we have to continue to communicate and get on the same page. I feel like we're getting better and progressing."

Elam has had to compensate for the problems in the back end by making plays closer to the line of scrimmage, where the Ravens hope to take advantage of the kind of ultra-physical play that made him a University of Florida standout.

It surfaced late during the Week Five loss at Indianapolis, when Elam -- who played through a bruised right shoulder he incurred during that game -- stripped running back Ahmad Bradshaw of the ball, his first career forced fumble. Teammate Terrence Brooks fell on it, giving the Ravens a chance for a late game-tying touchdown drive.

Even though Baltimore fell short that day, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh is well aware of Elam's burning desire to get better.

"[Matt Elam] wants to be good," Harbaugh said. "[Earlier this season], he didn't play as well as he could; that's kind of what you're saying. And I think he does press to be as best he can be. 

"Matt has a lot of pride. Matt wants to be a great player. Matt feels a lot of pressure to do that, which is a good thing."

The highest-impact plays a defensive back can make are interceptions, which the Ravens have lacked during the season's early going. The secondary recorded one pickoff through six games.

While he has not intercepted a pass, Elam has recorded 22 tackles, the fifth largest total on the team, and he has done so without drawing many penalty flags, despite the league's newfound emphasis on penalties common to defensive backs. 

Last season, as the Ravens were racking up the fourth-most penalties in franchise history, Elam was called for three accepted infractions, two pass-interference penalties and an unnecessary-roughness call. 

Through six games this year, Elam had been flagged by officials three times, putting him on roughly the same three-penalty pace. During the first quarter of the Week Three win at Cleveland, Elam was called for interfering with Cleveland Browns tight end Jordan Cameron in the end zone, setting up a touchdown.

During that same game, the play that has defined the Ravens' back-end problems took place. Rookie wideout Taylor Gabriel ran free in the secondary for a 70-yard completion that also saw Elam fail to touch him when he fell down without contact.

"It was a miscommunication," Elam said. "It ended up that a man ran free, and then we didn't touch him down. It was a great effort play by Jimmy Smith [to finally make the tackle]. All I can say is that it was a lack of communication. We didn't communicate pre-snap and it happened."

Most coaches say a player's greatest learning curve and improvement potential comes between his first and second year. But defensive coordinator Dean Pees had his own no-frills way of communicating to Elam about how he should have attacked the Cleveland situation.

"Well, ‘miscommunication' would not be one of the words I would have used," Pees said. "'Very poor technique in the backend,' is what I would have said. There are a couple of them [where] there wasn't any communication. Just line up and play, and play your position. 

"We were beat on a three-deep coverage that, I don't know what communication there is there other than, ‘Get your [butt] deep.' So, I would not go that route, I guess."

Oct. 5 Carolina, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton picked on Elam a little more, completing a pair of sideline throws that were so pinpoint-accurate that it's doubtful any safety or cornerback could have defended them. Yet, partially because of those completions, Elam was ranked as the fourth-worst safety in the league through the season's first quarter by Pro Football Focus.

But such cold analysis doesn't take away the fact that the 23-year-old Elam, the fourth defensive first-rounder the Ravens have tabbed since Terrell Suggs in 2003, wants to play as well as he has already shown, albeit only occasionally. If he does so, he will become the Ravens' first top defensive draft pick to make a Pro Bowl since 2006 first-rounder Haloti Ngata.

For his part, Harbaugh thinks Elam has had a better season than most realize.

"He played very well against Pittsburgh, too, though, if you think about it," Harbaugh said. "Those are the kinds of things, [where] you get more and more good performances, and pretty soon, you stack a little bit of a history, and you become a good player. And that's where Matt is headed."

Recently, Elam was heading out of the locker room at the practice facility when he saw teammate Courtney Upshaw talking to a reporter. "Hey, Courtney, make sure he doesn't ask you any crazy questions," Elam quipped.

For Elam's part, if he plays the way the Ravens know he can, he will have communicated his own answers clearly.

Issue 202: October 2014