Entering a rematch against a Cincinnati Bengals team that exploited an undermanned Ravens secondary in a Week 1 win, that unit of the Ravens defense is now one of the deepest and most versatile in football.
Particularly at safety, where a set two-man unit has evolved into a four-player platoon that last week varied by series and situation, the Ravens have mixed in more talent on the back end and are deploying it in a unique way.
"We have a lot of smart guys back there," head coach John Harbaugh said. "We do have depth. We do have a lot of good players. We're searching for the right combinations."
What began as a fixed starting safety combination of veteran Darian Stewart and former first-round pick Matt Elam has become a rotating cast since the first week of the season, when the Bengals compiled 301 yards passing and got over the top of Stewart and cornerback Chykie Brown for a game-winning touchdown. The Ravens defense ranks 24th in pass yards allowed, but has allowed a league-low seven touchdown passes.
While cornerback play improved with the return of Lardarius Webb and the addition of Dominique Franks, safety has remainded a work in progress. Stewart (16 catches allowed for 265 yards) and Elam (14 catches allowed for 249 yards) have allowed the third- and fourth-most yards in their coverage areas of all NFL safeties, according to Pro Football Focus.
Rookie Terrence Brooks and veteran Jeromy Miles each saw significant snaps at safety in the past few games, with Elam playing some nickel back. Will Hill, who was suspended for the first six games this season, returned last week and saw significant playing time.
Within the first six defensive plays last Sunday, Elam, Stewart, Hill, and Brooks saw multiple snaps.
In Hill's first game back from suspension, he and Stewart alternated series. Stewart — the starter at free safety all season — handled the two-minute drills, when his experience in the system would be useful, and played in the longer drives, which accounts for his playing nearly double the snaps Hill did.
While Stewart was in and out of the St. Louis Rams' starting lineup during his first four years in the NFL, Hill was rated one of the NFL's best cover safeties last season, when he started 10 games for the New York Giants. Despite his promise, the third-year safety was released after his suspension for a failed drug test.
Both safeties played well, with Stewart making five tackles and defending one pass, and Hill making two tackles and getting to Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan for an early knockdown.
Brooks and Elam also shared time, though their rotation was more situational than by series. Elam has been attacked in the passing game while lining up as a slot cornerback and safety this season, and as a result, he was limited to mostly early-down and run situations. With the Ravens jumping out to an early lead and Atlanta forced to pass to catch up, Elam played a season-low 22 snaps.
Brooks, the 2014 third-round draft pick, played twice as many snaps as last year's first-round pick. He substituted in with Franks, the nickel back, in third-down and passing situations, and his 44 snaps represented a second straight week of significant playing time for the rookie.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees said the depth hasn't necessarily allowed him to open up the playbook, but has instead helped put players in better position to succeed.
"You might try to get guys in a position that maybe they can do something a little better," Pees said. "If you have a guy that can blitz a little better, a guy that can play man a little better, you might be able to do some things like that. But it hasn't really changed the scheme. All you do is you teach the scheme, and then you put the guys into the scheme the way they fit best."
Depending on which side of the equation each safety finds himself, the view of the platoon differs. Stewart and Elam, whose playing time was diminished by the decision, believe spells on the sidelines could provide valuable rest, given how much the pair played through the first six weeks.
"It keeps the back-end fresh, so people can run to the ball and be fresh, and it just gives everybody a role in the game," Elam said. "That can be beneficial for the team, and help the team win, because all the safeties can play in this league and make big plays in this league."
For Hill and Brooks, the growing roles benefit both the team and individual.
"It makes us interchangeable, makes us more diverse," Hill said. "Everybody has their own specialty and what they're capable of doing. By changing it up like that, the opponent really doesn't get a good read on who's going to be out there. They've got to study for [everybody]. That's hard to do."
Brooks understands his role as a passing-down safety, but sees it as a stepping stone.
"I'm really just playing wherever I'm needed. My snaps are increasing a lot more, so that's a good thing, but for the most part, I'm trying to get that starting job," said Brooks, who noted he was also taking snaps with the base defense this week. "I'm not really going to settle for that type of role, but that's where I'm needed right now, so I've got to play my role. But in due time, it's always in the works to get the starting job."
Until the roles are settled, teams must prepare for the possibility of seeing all four — and potentially others.
"It gives that mysterious feel to coaches where they can't really pinpoint exactly where anyone will come from, where we'll be lined up, what personnel will be out there," Miles said. "I think it makes it a lot tougher to game plan against that type of thing. I think it's a great strategy we have going."