PITTSBURGH — Great players make big plays in big games, but they also make them on days they haven’t been playing well.
Take the case of Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey. He was having a so-so game Sunday before he stripped Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster of the ball after a catch in overtime and recovered the fumble at the Steelers’ 34-yard-line.
Four plays later, the Ravens trotted out “Mr. Automatic,” Justin Tucker, who converted on a 46-yard field goal with 5:26 left to give the Ravens a much-needed 26-23 victory.
“Big-time players make big-time plays in big games,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s what Marlon Humphrey just did. Wow.”
Wow. That’s not just the reaction to the play Humphrey made Sunday, but to the kind of season he is having. In his third year, he is having the proverbial breakout, Pro Bowl-caliber season and could be on the verge of something bigger.
“The season is only five games old and he still has a lot to learn, but he could become special before it is over,” Harbaugh said.
The signs of an incredible season came early. Few players enjoy the rigors and heat of training camp, and a lot of players take plays — even days — off. But during the summer, Humphrey contested every receiver on every play with a focus unseen in his first two seasons.
With each game, Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale have trusted Humphrey more to match up with the opposing team’s top receiver. Last week, he slowed down the Cleveland Browns’ Odell Beckham Jr., holding him to just two catches. Beckham got so frustrated that he got into a fight with Humphrey during a play, earning offsetting unnecessary roughness penalties.
Oh, that was beautiful to watch.
And then came Sunday.
Smith-Schuster had beaten Humphrey for a 35-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Humphrey could have pushed Smith-Schuster out of bounds near the goal line on that play, but instead tried to strip him of the ball without wrapping him up for the tackle.
In overtime, it was Humphrey versus Smith-Schuster again. This time, we know who won.
"I was lined up in the slot. JuJu was there, he had been running a lot of overs,” Humphrey said. “I usually don’t follow guys to the slot, but JuJu plays a lot in the slot, so I was kind of matching up with him. And he ran the over, and he got away from me, really.
“We keep track of it all the time, and it was good that — it’s not really a thing you just do. It’s kind of instincts,” said Humphrey of punching the ball out. “You just practice so much that when you get the opportunity, you try to secure the tackle and try to get the ball, punch out. I got it out, and then I thought we were going to pick it up.”
They didn’t, which made Humphrey’s play even more spectacular. Not only did he get up after taking down Smith-Schuster, but he scooped up the ball in stride before being tackled.
That might not seem hard to some people, but scooping up a rolling football is like trying to catch a chicken in an open field. Humphrey took a few steps before being tackled, but that’s OK. He made a big play in a big game.
That’s how legends get started.
“It was huge. I love playing here. I love playing against the Steelers,” Humphrey said. “It’s great, man. I was on the sideline. I was thinking, ‘Whatever happens right now, somebody’s going to make a big play and they’ll be remembered forever for the outcome of this game.’ ”
And that’s how good players become Pro Bowl players. Humphrey is on course. A lot of NFL players hit their peaks in their fourth or fifth years, but the good ones come into their own in about Year 3.
When the Ravens drafted Humphrey in the first round out of Alabama in 2017, they wanted a shutdown cornerback to team with Jimmy Smith. Humphrey was big, fast, tough and physical.
He started five games in 2017, finished with 34 tackles, knocked down 11 passes and collected two interceptions. He started eight games in 2018 and had 37 tackles, knocked down a team-high 15 passes and had two interceptions.
At one point in his rookie season, then-defensive coordinator Dean Pees thought about matching him up with Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown. Now, it’s a given.
“Marlon doesn’t do a lot of screaming and yelling. He just does it,” Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce said. “He just does some really impressive things and it’s been like that since he got here. He is a remarkable athlete and I’ve liked watching him grow.”
Humphrey acknowledged making his share of mistakes Sunday, and he is one of the most accountable players on the roster. The Ravens need a player like him this season because this team has been absent of playmakers for years.
Even Sunday, the Ravens struggled against a team that was playing two backup quarterbacks. The Ravens got pushed around on both sides of the ball, had very little success running the ball, and their Super Man quarterback, Lamar Jackson, apparently left his cape in the phone booth.
But along came Humphrey to add to his resume and maybe, finally, get some league-wide recognition.
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“Marlon can do almost anything on the field when he’s locked in,” Ravens outside linebacker Matt Judon said. “Today, I feel like he was locked in and he showed it. Kudos to Marlon. That’s a huge play in a critical time. They gave us the ball first. We didn’t move it. We had to strap up on defense and Marlon came up with the play.”