There are few football-related topics that Ravens coach John Harbaugh turns aside quicker than comparison questions and opportunities to relive the past. Predictably, neither was in play late Monday afternoon as Harbaugh wrapped up his team’s thorough 44-20 victory over the Detroit Lions and began preparing for the challenges ahead.
For those outside the team facility, the comparisons between the Ravens’ current situation and how last season unfolded are suddenly inevitable, with the latest parallel being cornerback Jimmy Smith’s season-ending Achilles tendon injury and subsequent suspension.
Last year’s Ravens were 7-5 and in a good postseason position after playing their best all-around game of the season in a 38-6 clobbering of the Miami Dolphins. But they’d lose Smith to a season-ending ankle injury the following week and drop three of their final four games, missing the NFL playoffs at 8-8.
This year’s Ravens enter Week 14 with an identical 7-5 record and having won four of their past five games, just like last year’s team. They are a game ahead of a host of teams for the second wild-card spot. As they get ready for Sunday’s prime-time matchup against the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens are again preparing for life without Smith, their top cover corner.
That’s where the Ravens hope the comparisons to last year end. Smith’s absence figured prominently in the defense falling apart over the final four games of 2016.
“Compared to previous years, we’re much better able to handle the injury to Jimmy,” Harbaugh said Monday. “We’re much better able to handle that than we’ve been in the past.”
Smith, who tore his left Achilles in the first half of Sunday’s win, will be placed on injured reserve and the Ravens will promote cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste from the practice squad to fill his roster spot. But even if he had not suffered the injury, Smith might not have been available for the Ravens’ final four regular-season games anyway.
The league and the Ravens announced Monday that Smith will start serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. The announcement came after Smith dropped the appeal of his suspension, which he can serve while on injured reserve. The Ravens became aware of Smith’s pending suspension last week.
“I don't really know the details of it,” Harbaugh said. “He'll be on IR, I know that. However the rules work with that, that's how it will play out. I knew about it before the injury.”
If Smith were healthy, he could have served the suspension and still returned for the postseason if the Ravens qualify. The injury makes that a moot point as Smith now awaits surgery and an arduous rehabilitation process. He’ll miss Sunday’s key game against the Steelers and their star wideout Antonio Brown, along with matchups against the Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals. Smith and the Ravens held the dynamic Brown to four catches for 36 yards in a 26-9 loss to Pittsburgh on Oct. 1 at M&T Bank Stadium.
The timing of the injury and suspension couldn’t be worse for Smith, who was hoping to finish the season strong and earn his first Pro Bowl berth, and for the Ravens, who will have to deal with top receivers Brown, the Browns’ Josh Gordon, the Colts’ T.Y. Hilton and the Bengals’ A.J. Green without their best cover guy on the field.
Despite battling Achilles tendinitis, Smith started the Ravens’ first 12 games and had 26 tackles, nine passes defended, three interceptions and two defensive touchdowns. Other than struggling against the Houston Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins, Smith has been one of the team’s top-performing players and one of the league’s highest-graded cornerbacks.
The Ravens will rely heavily on rookie first-round pick Marlon Humphrey to replace Smith. Maurice Canady, undrafted rookie Jaylen Hill and Jean-Baptiste can all contribute. A second-round pick by the New Orleans Saints in 2014, Jean-Baptiste hasn’t played in an NFL regular-season game since his rookie season. He’s also in his sixth organization in the past four years.
“We will bring up Stanley, and he will be up off of the practice squad, and we will roll,” Harbaugh said.
While praising Smith’s willingness to play through Achilles soreness this year, Ravens safety Eric Weddle made it clear after Sunday’s game that the secondary isn’t going to dwell on his absence.
“It’s unfortunate, but our secondary is the strength of our team,” Weddle said. “We’re not going to sit back and be sorry for ourselves. Maurice is back. Marlon has got to step up. Jaylen has got to step up. That’s why we have so much depth. Will the guys be as good as Jimmy? No. But we’ll step up and play well in his absence.”
While there are similarities to the timing of Smith going down last year and what was the league’s top-ranked defense at the time collapsing in December, there is also one significant difference. The Ravens played three of their final four games in 2016 on the road, and that included trips to face the league-best New England Patriots, the Steelers and the Bengals, who have had the Ravens’ number in recent seasons.
After Sunday’s game against the Steelers, the Ravens will be at home for two of their final three games. And the combined record of their final three opponents is 8-27.
Sunday’s victory over the Lions not only gave the current Ravens a little breathing room and margin of error in the playoff race, but it also might have provided a jolt of confidence. An offense that has struggled all year broke out as quarterback Joe Flacco threw for two touchdown passes and Alex Collins ran for two. The Ravens also didn’t turn the ball over on their way to building a 20-point halftime lead and then sealing the deal with 24 fourth-quarter points.
“It’s late in the season; it’s December,” Flacco said. “We pride ourselves on playing good football in December. It hasn’t been ideal to this point, but we have set ourselves up to the point where we are playing meaningful December football, and that’s one of the goals at the end of the day. We’re going to continue to do that, and yes, a game like this, late in the year versus a team that’s also trying to make a push for the playoffs, can definitely do a lot for our confidence.”
As Flacco made the comment after the game Sunday, Harbaugh, who was standing off to the side, nodded his approval.
“That's something we talk about a lot around here,” Harbaugh said. “It's the way we organize the whole program, to play our best in December and January. I think our guys take that very seriously and that's the goal. We're just starting in December. We've had one game out of five, and we'll see what we're able to do with this. But that's definitely our aspiration.”