“You guys are so far off on the opening game, you have no idea,” he said last week. “You have no idea. I told you before, out of 67 plays, 60 of them we played Denver better than we've ever played them. We played seven plays horrendous, but 60 plays were good.”

Regardless, those seven plays were bad enough that the team's defensive backs lambasted themselves as much as any outside critic.

“Man, we won't think about that first game in Denver,” Webb said.

A “bump in the road,” Ihedigbo called it.

By the season's third week against the Houston Texans, he said, the unit began to feel more comfortable. The coverage miscues became rare, and each player took on a more distinct identity.

In many ways, that began with Ihedigbo, who entered training camp as an afterthought but seized the strong safety job with his vicious hits and vocal leadership. He emerged as the new defensive signal caller in the backfield.

The climb from anonymity was nothing new for a player who entered the NFL as a rookie free agent out of Massachusetts and didn't make his first interception until this year.

“I was challenged to fill a void at safety,” he said. “They thought other people could do it, and I was overlooked. I was more of a security blanket, but I knew from the beginning of the year that I was going to be a starter. And I knew I could help lead this team and this defense. It was just a matter of getting people to view me as I view myself.”

Elam also emerged as a formidable hitter, playing almost every snap from the second game of the season on.

The Ravens demonstrated their faith in both when they cut Huff midway through the season.

At cornerback, Smith battled the same old inconsistency early in the season, leading some analysts to wonder whether he'd ever figure it out. In the second half, however, he has become the Ravens' clear choice to cover the other team's best receiver. It's a role he seemed born for given his ideal size and fluid feet.

After starting the opener, Graham has served as the team's third cornerback but has also delivered a string of excellent performances in the second half.

Webb, meanwhile, acknowledges that he's spent the season regaining confidence in his repaired right knee. He has looked close to the Webb of old in recent weeks — not the pure cover corner Smith is but a versatile defender who can blitz and stuff running backs near the line of scrimmage.

“Physical,” Ihedigbo said when asked for a word to define the group's play. Not that they're a crew of hard personalities off the field.

“We got jokers. We got clowns,” Ihedigbo continued. “Lardarius Webb is a joker. Jimmy Smith? You can't even really take him seriously on game day. We've got a lot of characters, but we jell together great.”

In fact these guys do seem to enjoy singing one another's praises. Here's Webb's man-by-man scouting report:

“You think about Jimmy Smith, he's playing Pro Bowl level. He's playing high-level ball. You can tell that off last week [against Detroit].”

“Matt Elam, he's just growing each week. He's grown up. He's not that little pup anymore.”

“Corey's a baller, ever since he's been here. He's just a playmaker. He gets his hands on the ball.”

“James Ihedigbo, he's the enforcer. People are scared to catch the ball, because they know he's back there. I'm impressed with how he took that leadership role. He's the leader in that back end. He takes control when he needs to.”

For all the good vibes, the unit didn't play its best game against the Patriots. A pass-interference penalty on Smith set up New England's first touchdown in the 41-7 rout. And Patriots receivers burst open too easily on short routes. Even so, the secondary helped hold Tom Brady to modest numbers — 14 of 26 for 172 yards, the great quarterback's second-lowest total of the season.

The unit will try to do the same against the Bengals and Green, who put up 151 yards (aided by an unlikely Hail Mary catch) in the Ravens' Nov. 10 win in Baltimore.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who consistently has praised his secondary in recent weeks, did little to downplay the challenge represented by the 6-foot-4 Green.

“I think I was the first guy who came out two years ago and said I thought he was the best receiver in football,” Harbaugh said. “So, I'm on record with the A.J. Green kudos. I'll stand on that. He's a great player.”

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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