James Ihedigbo

"It's everything," safety James Ihedigbo said of the Ravens' Week 17 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. (Christopher T. Assaf, Baltimore Sun / December 8, 2013)

The Ravens secondary traveled to Detroit for its Dec. 16 game with a bull's-eye firmly affixed on it.

Not only would third-year cornerback Jimmy Smith try to blanket the planet's greatest receiver, Calvin Johnson. Critics waited gleefully for rookie safety Matt Elam to fall on his face after he made a lighthearted comment about Johnson's age and declining physicality.

Instead of suffering a nationally televised humiliation, however, the unit did solid work against the Lions, with Smith largely containing Johnson and Elam clinching a crucial win on his first career interception.

The performance illustrated the secondary's progress, from a group that hadn't learned to play together early in the season to one of the Ravens' strengths.

After a less confident outing Sunday against the New England Patriots, the spotlight will be back on the unit as the Ravens prepare for a do-or-die game against the Cincinnati Bengals and another of the NFL's best receivers, A.J. Green.

“Next week, it's everything,” said safety James Ihedigbo, the secondary's verbal leader.

According to snap-by-snap grades handed out by Pro Football Focus, all three of the Ravens' regular cornerbacks rank among the NFL's top 30. Ihedigbo grades as one of the league's 20 best safeties and Elam as a steady run defender.

The group doesn't feature a star the likes of a prime Ed Reed, and none of its members rank among the league's interception leaders. But each player brings an important skill to the mix.

The members of the secondary don't attribute the unit's improvement to any magic bullet. They say they simply grew more accustomed to playing together, with each man settling into a well-defined role.

“You think about it, it's all about playing with new guys,” Ihedigbo said. “The secondary is completely different than it was last year. When there's so many different parts and changing parts, it's going to take a little bit of time to mesh together.”

“Experience, confidence — all those kinds of things,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees in explaining the unit's consistency in the second half of the season. “We haven't changed a whole lot, either. I think the more you get used to doing the same thing week after week after week, the better you become, the more confident you become.”

Like much of the team, the secondary faced significant turnover in the offseason.

Reed, the face of the unit and a respected mentor to his younger peers, left for Houston. Bernard Pollard, the group's fiercest hitter and another commanding personality, signed with the Tennessee Titans after the Ravens cut him.

The most established returning starter, Lardarius Webb, faced an uncertain future after he lost most of 2012 to the second major knee injury of his young career.

Smith had yet to establish himself as the full-time coverage ace the Ravens projected when they drafted him in the first round in 2011.

Neither Corey Graham nor Ihedigbo had ever started for a full season. In fact, the Ravens signed veteran safety Michael Huff thinking he, not Ihedigbo, would likely fill Reed's shoes.

Elam was a first-round pick out of Florida but a rookie.

The doubts about this untested group intensified after a disastrous opener in Denver, where Peyton Manning threw seven touchdown passes in a 49-27 bludgeoning. Several times in that loss, Ravens defensive backs stared at one another in confusion as Denver receivers streaked into uncovered expanses.

Pees has dismissed criticisms of that performance as overblown.