The moment Lardarius Webb hit the turf Sunday, the Ravens assumed they would be moving forward without him.
Tests confirmed Monday that Webb, a rare bright spot on the Ravens’ fading defense, needed knee surgery and would miss the rest of the season. More bad news came later in the day when the team learned that linebacker Ray Lewis would also be heading to injured reserve.
Arguably their most valuable defender, Webb, 27, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the first quarter of Sunday’s 31-29 win over the Dallas Cowboys at M&T Bank Stadium. As he jostled for position with Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, Webb crumpled to the turf and clutched his knee. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he could tell right away that Webb’s season was in jeopardy.
“These are guys who put so much effort, heart and soul into what they do,” Harbaugh said Monday at his weekly news conference. “Lardarius [Sunday] was distraught. I could see it when I walked on the field — on his face. You kind of knew because he has been through it before. And I just felt like he knew. And he was just beside himself.”
Webb, who shredded the ACL in his right knee during his rookie season nearly three years ago, will undergo surgery to repair his left knee with renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, who performed his first knee reconstruction. The surgery has not yet been scheduled.
The Ravens, who as of Sunday ranked 26th in total defense and 23rd against the pass, must now overcome the loss of a player many NFL analysts say was emerging as one of the best cornerbacks in football. Harbaugh said Webb had established himself as one.
“I’m biased, but I would say he was the best,” Harbaugh said of the fourth-year player. “Maybe some other people would question that, but I don’t question it. I see him every day. I wouldn’t take anybody over Lardarius Webb. He will be back. He has been through this before. He will rehab like crazy and he’ll be back next year, stronger than ever. He’s just that kind of guy.”
The Ravens showed Webb how much they thought of him in April when they signed him to a five-year, $50 million contract extension. In 41 career games, Webb has intercepted eight passes, recorded 181 tackles and broken up 41 passes. He had one interception this season, and he hasn’t given up a touchdown since the final month of the 2010 regular season.
Second-year cornerback Jimmy Smith, the 27th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, will replace Webb in the starting lineup. Smith started four games last season as the third cornerback and intercepted New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the AFC championship game.
Smith, a tall, rangy cornerback who is listed at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, competed with Cary Williams during training camp for the starting spot opposite Webb, but was unable to unseat Williams, who has started every game since the 2011 season opener. Still, Smith has played more than 50 percent of the defensive snaps this season, breaking up three passes.
Asked after Sunday’s game if he was up for the challenge, he said, without blinking, “I’m ready.”
“I think I’ll be starting for a while,” the confident 24-year-old said. “I’m very excited. That’s what I’ve been waiting for. It’s my time to shine, which is good, but I feel bad for Webb. Lardarius is a special type of guy with a lot of talent. He brings such an impact to our defense that it hurts.”
The area where Webb was most effective was in the slot, where he used his quickness and tenacity to stick to shifty receivers in the middle of the field. When the Ravens used their nickel package, Webb would move to the slot with Williams and Smith manning the outside.
Harbaugh indicated Monday that veteran Corey Graham, who was a Pro Bowl special teams player for the Chicago Bears before signing with the Ravens this offseason, will get the first crack at filling in for Webb in the nickel. Harbaugh didn’t rule out signing another cornerback, and young cornerbacks Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown could also be in the mix.
“Corey has been in there. Corey will do a good job in there, and he won’t be the only one,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve got a couple guys who can play in there. … The thing I like about Corey is he can play outside, he can play inside and he can play safety. So, he gives us a lot of versatility there.”
With Webb sidelined for most of Sunday’s game and with Smith also missing snaps with a groin injury, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo completed 25 of his 36 attempts for 261 yards and two touchdowns and one interception. Often working against Williams or Smith, Bryant had 13 receptions for 95 yards and two touchdowns, including one with 32 seconds left in the game.
Harbaugh said he thought the reserve corners “acquitted themselves well” in Webb’s absence.
The Ravens now move forward without Webb and Lewis, who tore his right triceps in the fourth quarter. The future of Lewis is unclear, but Webb’s teammates expect him to come back strong.
“I’m hurting for that guy right now,” safety Ed Reed said Sunday. “I know how hard he works to be out here and what he brings to the game. If we lost him for the year, it’s going to kill us. But, we have to play for him and pick him up because he’s young. … He can come back from this.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson contributed to this article.