CINCINNATI — For Lardarius Webb, the Ravens' season-ending 24-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday almost felt like a new beginning. For fellow defensive back Jimmy Smith, it was a welcome end to a difficult season during which he only recently started to feel like himself.
In a losing effort, the Ravens pass defense, which statistically had been the league's top-performing unit in the second half after a dreadful first half of the season, held the Bengals to 147 passing yards and sacked A.J. McCarron three times. And they did it with longtime starting cornerback Webb playing almost exclusively at free safety and with Smith playing far better than he did when the two teams matched up in late September.
"It's nothing new. It's regular," Webb said after the game when asked about playing safety. "It will just come to the time when they want me to make that move — now or three years from now. It happened now."
Webb, who had played some safety the past couple of weeks, said that he views his move to the back end of the Ravens defense as a permanent one.
"I just view myself as helping this defense," he said. "We're trying to become a more athletic secondary. Me at free safety, I think that will help out a lot with me roaming the middle of the field and just being able to have more control of the defense."
Webb spent the first half alongside Kendrick Lewis at safety. Will Hill, who started 14 of the Ravens' first 15 games, rotated in before he was lost for the game with a back injury.
"Safeties are making all of the calls, all the checks. You just have to be more into it," said Webb, who played some safety in college. "Everybody is waiting on me to make the check at safety. So basically, you are in control of the defense. I like that part. I'm getting older, I've been more of a leader and [at] safety, it helps a lot."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh did not proclaim that Webb's transition to safety is permanent, but foreshadowed such a move a couple of weeks ago when he acknowledged that the 30-year-old is better suited playing the slot or at free safety, rather than being outside in coverage.
The Ravens have four safeties under contract for next season: Lewis, Hill, Terrence Brooks and Matt Elam, the former first-round NFL draft pick who missed all of the 2015 season after tearing his biceps early in training camp. Webb would bring the type of ball skills that the Ravens have lacked on the back end.
A permanent move of Webb to safety would make cornerback an even more pressing need this offseason. But Smith's improved play has at least eased some of the angst.
Smith, who was beaten early and often by Bengals star receiver A.J. Green in the Ravens' 28-24 loss to Cincinnati in Week 3, was barely tested by the Bengals Sunday. Green had four catches for 34 yards and a 5-yard touchdown reception, which came while being guarded by cornerback Shareece Wright.
Smith would not talk during the season about his injuries, which include a slow-recovering foot and a bad wrist. With the season now over, Smith conceded Sunday that he struggled to rebound from a Lisfranc fracture that ended his 2014 season and required surgery last November.
"My foot was huge for me. I didn't really realize how slow I was, how much I couldn't cut and burst until I really got into live action because [there was] no preseason for me," Smith said. "It was rough for about eight, nine games until I could finally get my movement back.
"Each week, I tried new things just to feel like my old self. It's just a year off. With that injury, you don't train at all. You just do rehab, so when you come back, you're not yourself. It was rough for me. I haven't really had to deal with something that severe. A Lisfranc, it's in your foot and all DBs do is footwork. It was rough for me, but toward the end of the season, I feel like I was starting to get back."
Smith, who signed a five-year, contract in April, said he would take the next couple of months off before starting to train in March.