The Ravens' cornerbacks grew before Corey Ivy's very eyes.
In a 21-7 loss yesterday to the Cincinnati Bengals that offered little to cheer about, the defense may have found a glimmer of hope in the performance of a cornerback corps lacking in experience but brimming with earnestness.
Derrick Martin (22 years old), Ronnie Prude (25) and Willie Gaston (24) received significant action, and matched up against a Pro Bowl quarterback in Carson Palmer and a dangerous receiving corps in Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry. That trio - along with safeties Ed Reed and Dawan Landry - did not surrender a touchdown.
"No, we're all about scoreboard victories about here," Ivy said. "But those young guys did do a good job. It's something for them to build on."
Their effort came at an opportune time for a unit hit hard by health issues. Even before the game began, the team had deactivated starting cornerbacks Chris McAlister (strained knee) and Samari Rolle (illness) and backup David Pittman (concussion).
Because of those losses, the team promoted Gaston, an undrafted rookie out of Houston, to the active roster yesterday.
The defense started Ivy and Martin at the corner with Prude entering the game as the fifth defensive back in nickel packages, but the Ravens lost Ivy midway through the first quarter when he took Bengals right guard Bobbie Williams' left knee to the helmet during a fumble.
That meant that Martin and Prude played the corners, while Gaston received action in the nickel packages. After those three, there were no other cornerbacks in uniform.
"We were all we got," Martin said of their mentality. "We had to play - just us."
Martin finished the game with five tackles, Prude compiled four tackles and deflected a pass, and Gaston had one tackle. The secondary also limited the Cincinnati passing attack to one completion longer than 25 yards.
But perhaps the biggest victory was preventing a trip into the end zone. It was a much-noted departure from last week's 38-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in which the defense allowed five passing touchdowns - all in the first half
"We didn't give up any touchdowns, so I think that was our main goal coming into this game," Prude said. "I think as a whole, the secondary played pretty well. This whole week, we studied their tendencies and just came out and played."
The cornerbacks' play caught the attention of coach Brian Billick.
"With the guys we didn't have available to us, the plan that the defensive coaches implemented, and the way that those guys went out there on a short field, what they did was incredible," he said.
Tight end Todd Heap aggravated his strained hamstring and said he didn't know the severity of the injury.
"It's been better," said Heap, who left the game early in the third quarter after catching a 10-yard pass and did not return. "Tried to go on it today. It's been hampering me for a while. It's definitely something that's frustrating and something I haven't dealt with before. I don't know what to expect from it. I'm just trying to do everything I can to get back as soon as possible."
Ivy suffered a concussion but said he wanted to return.
"I could've gone back in, but I guess it's a new league rule that you can't go in if you've had a concussion of some sort," he said. "I just sat out the rest of the game and watched my young guys go out there and handle their business."
Rookie linebacker Prescott Burgess said he tweaked his left quadriceps, which has been bothering him since the loss against the Steelers.
Cory Ross acknowledges that he has had better days.
Thrust into the role of returner after rookie Yamon Figurs' sprained right knee was too sore for him to play, Ross returned seven kickoffs for 112 yards (including a long of 25 yards) and two punts for 27 yards (including a long of 15).
But Ross chastised himself for failing to corral a short kickoff that bounced off his hands and was recovered by Cincinnati safety Marvin White at the Ravens' 11-yard line.
"It took a real funny bounce," Ross said of the muffed kickoff, which the Bengals converted into a field goal. "Justin [Green] was trying to get to it, and he didn't get to it. And the way the bounce was going, I tried to jump on it, and I just mishandled it. I knew it was a live ball, but it was just a mishap on our parts. Just an all-around bad day for us."
Kick short of record
The kicker booted seven field goals yesterday, breaking the team record set Nov. 6, 1994, when Doug Pelfrey converted six against the Seattle Seahawks.
Graham acknowledged afterward that he entertained the thought of Bironas' record.
"I would be lying if I said I wasn't hoping for another chance," Graham said. "There really wasn't enough time to explain it with where the clock was. You don't want to rub it in to the other team because the game was already won at that point, and it wouldn't be right."