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Unlikely group has solidified Ravens at cornerback

FootballBaltimore RavensNFLIndianapolis ColtsLardarius WebbAtlanta Falcons

Dean Pees likes to joke that he has recently developed a routine before addressing the Ravens' injury-wracked cornerback group on the first full day of practice each week.

"Every week, it's like I take attendance in our room to see who shows up," he cracked.

Laughs aside, the defensive coordinator and secondary coach Teryl Austin have used glue, string and perhaps a little magic to cobble together a productive cornerback corps despite losing Lardarius Webb for the season in October and getting limited production from Jimmy Smith.

As he did last season, Cary Williams has started all 16 games. The Ravens have also relied on the trio of Corey Graham, Chykie Brown and Chris Johnson to contain opposing offenses.

That group will meet another formidable challenge Sunday when the Indianapolis Colts visit M&T Bank Stadium for an AFC wild-card playoff game. But count Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck as one player who is impressed with what the Ravens cornerbacks have done thus far.

"I think every team is going to have injures at this point, and the guys that have filled in have done a remarkable job," the top overall pick in April's draft said during a conference call with Baltimore media Wednesday. "They are very good corners, so I wouldn't say necessarily that that's where we're going to attack."

In the preseason, the Ravens' depth at cornerback was regarded as one of the strongest in the NFL. They had with Webb and Williams as starters, Smith as the fifth defensive back in nickel packages and could use Graham in dime personnel.

But the unit struggled through the first six games of the season. The Philadelphia Eagles' Michael Vick, the New England Patriots' Tom Brady and the Cleveland Browns' Brandon Weeden each threw for more than 300 yards in consecutive games against the Ravens, and opposing quarterbacks completed 62.5 percent of their passes.

Over the second half of the season, only the Oakland Raiders' Carson Palmer eclipsed the 300-yard mark, and opponents completed 59 percent of their throws.

Webb, who led the defense with eight interceptions in 2011, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee against the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 14. And Smith, who started two games in Webb's absence, underwent sports hernia surgery on Nov. 15 and sat out five games.

That led to bigger roles for Graham and Brown.

Graham, whose eight starts this season are just two shy of his career total heading into the year, has broken up a career-best eight passes and added two interceptions.

Brown, the team's fifth-round pick last year, has become the nickel back and had his best game Dec. 23 against the New York Giants, when he broke up four passes in the team's 33-14 win.

Pees acknowledged that he and Austin have had to adjust their schemes based on the cornerbacks' different set of strengths.

"You try to take your call sheet and say, 'OK, can we do this? Are we asking a guy to do something he can't do? Can we do something else to maybe confuse them a little bit, but it won't be confusing to us?'" Pees said. "The thing, to their credit, they study. Once we give them the plan and say, 'Here's what we want to do with you this week,' they really study it and take it to heart."

In an effort to scout upcoming opponents, the cornerbacks have met at a teammate's house, congregated at the team's practice facility in Owings Mills and watched film on their own. Graham said it's not unusual for the players to text each other what they've seen until midnight or beyond.

"It's just something where the guys are sharing what they see and sharing what they think," Graham said. "There's no timetable for it, there's no perfect place for it. Guys communicate, guys talk. We're trying to be the best we can."

Graham, Brown and Johnson — who has made seven tackles and forced one fumble in four games — have fortified the position. And in doing so, they have further burnished general manager Ozzie Newsome's reputation for finding players who can contribute.

"You have probably the best evaluator of talent in the National Football League," said NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes, a former Atlanta Falcons center. "By virtue of that, it would be the expectation that they have guys that can fit into what they do and there would be the expectation that they would perform well. Shock is not the word I would use."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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