During his 11 years in Baltimore, Ed Reed stalked center field for the Ravens. His ability to read quarterbacks, cover lots of ground quickly, and pick off passes made him the most feared single-high safety in NFL history.
Reed showed his age last season, but the Ravens still relied on him to cover the deep middle of the field while strong safety Bernard Pollard, who was limited in pass coverage, intimidated receivers after shorter throws.
Both starting safeties from 2012 are no longer with the Ravens, of course. Reed got a significant contract from the Houston Texans and Pollard latched on with the Tennessee Titans after the Ravens cut him in March.
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The Ravens have since signed Michael Huff, who played multiple positions during his Oakland Raiders career, and drafted Matt Elam, a fast, versatile playmaker from the University of Florida.
Huff and Elam are expected to replace Reed and Pollard on the depth chart, but all indications are that they will be used differently than their predecessors. While neither has the Hall-of-Fame range of Reed, both seem capable of playing a free-safety-type role.
That could allow the Ravens to use Huff and Elam interchangeably and to be more creative with their coverages in the secondary.
“They both are very fast. They both cover exceptionally well. And they’re both really good tackles,” coach John Harbaugh said. “So yes, we’ll be able to play them interchangeably at strong safety and free safety and hopefully create some problems for people.”
During his six seasons with the Raiders, Huff played both safety positions and was at times a nickel back in sub coverages. Last season, injuries forced the Raiders to play him at cornerback (he actually picked off Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in Week 10).
Meanwhile, Elam made plays all over the field for the Gators. Listed at 5-foot-10, he is on the smaller side for a strong safety, but he made up for it with tenacity, reliable tackling and a nose for the football. He can run with backs and taller tight ends and he should have enough range to be a factor as a deep zone defender.
“I think we’ll be good. We’re both interchangeable,” Huff said. “We can both play strong safety and free safety. We can both play the nickel. We can do it all, so offenses won’t know who is doing what before the snap. I think it will help the defense.”
While Huff is aware of Reed’s legacy in Baltimore -- “There’s only one Ed,” he said respectfully -- and the physical play of Pollard in his two years here, Huff stressed that he and his teammates, including Elam, are looking to do their own thing on the back end for a Ravens defense that figures to be better in 2013.
Make no mistake, though, the secondary will look different -- not just in who will be playing, but also where they will be playing.