Ravens secondary set for opening test against Peyton Manning and the Broncos

A banged-up secondary hurt the Ravens in 2014. How will the defensive backs fare against Peyton Manning?

For months, they've heard the talk about how they could be the weak link of an otherwise championship-caliber team. They've been reminded about their roles in blowing two 14-point leads in an AFC divisional playoff loss to the New England Patriots in January. They've dealt with injuries and change, and now the Ravens' secondary gets another challenge: Peyton Manning.

"It's about as tough as it gets," said Ravens cornerback Kyle Arrington of Sunday's regular-season opening matchup against Manning and the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field. "They don't make them easy, I'll tell you."

One of the most prominent storylines of the NFL's kickoff weekend is how Manning, now 39 and entering his 18th season, will fare in new head coach Gary Kubiak's offense. But from a Ravens' perspective, there is an unmistakable curiosity about how their new-look secondary will match up.

After spending the past several months adding a couple of defensive backs and securing the futures of three more, the Ravens' secondary will get its close-up Sunday and players weren't shying away about the importance of Week One.

"Every week is a big measuring stick, but this is definitely the first step," said Ravens starting strong safety Will Hill. "It's the first game. We'll see where we're at from this point on."

Several Ravens, including rush linebacker Terrell Suggs, deflected attention from the secondary, saying that one position group is not going to be the reason the team wins or loses games. But the scrutiny on the Ravens' defensive backfield is unavoidable.

Two years ago in the regular-season opener at Sports Authority Field, Manning picked the Ravens apart, tying an NFL record with seven touchdown passes. Last season, the Ravens secondary figured prominently in the team's demise as injuries mounted and defensive backs were exposed. The Ravens gave up a franchise-record 3,979 passing yards, tied a franchise low with just 11 interceptions and couldn't get a second-half stop against the Patriots with a berth in the AFC championship on the line.

That inspired general manager Ozzie Newsome and the team's front office to add Arrington and safety Kendrick Lewis in free agency, and draft cornerback Tray Walker in the fourth round. Newsome gave Jimmy Smith, the Ravens' top cornerback whose foot injury may have been the team's biggest setback in 2014, a lucrative contract extension and also reworked the contract of starting corner Lardarius Webb.

Late in training camp, the Ravens reached a two-year deal with Hill, solidifying the Ravens' secondary in the present and near future. Still, there remain significant questions as to how good the unit will be.

"Anticipating good things from our secondary," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I'm excited about those guys and feel very confident that they're going to play well."

Like with Manning who played sparingly during the preseason, the Ravens' secondary provided few clues in training camp and the exhibition season as to what kind of unitthey'll become.

Smith eased his way through training camp on his surgically repaired foot. Webb didn't play at all for a second straight preseason because of a hamstring injury. Key reserve Rashaan Melvin was on and off the field and is doubtful to play Sunday with a thigh injury. Walker, who played his college football at Texas Southern, appeared overmatched at times. Lewis also struggled in limited game action.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees praised the group, but also acknowledged that he would have liked to have seen a bit more.

"I think the guys are doing a good job," Pees said. "The only thing I'd say coming out of preseason is depth-wise, I was hoping we'd be a little more solid in some of the games than I thought we were. I really felt like the first-line guys and the next couple of guys were in pretty good shape. We just have to stay healthy like everybody else."

Injuries were the unit's biggest problem last year. Smith missed eight games and fellow corner Asa Jackson missed nine. Veteran cornerback Aaron Ross tore his Achilles before training camp even started. Webb was limited for most of the year by a back injury. Things got so bad that three of their top four corners in the playoff matchup against the Patriots were Melvin, who was plucked off the Miami Dolphins practice squad in November; and converted safeties Matt Elam and Anthony Levine.

"You can say struggles, but a lot of guys got hurt and a lot of men stepped up in their places," Webb said. "We faced adversity really well last year and we still made it to the playoffs, we won a playoff game with the secondary that we had. Not that it wasn't good, it was just all our [starters] were hurt. For us to have all our replacements in and to still do the things we did, I look at it as a win."

If there is a question mark in the group, it probably is Webb who practiced sparingly all summer but says that he feels better physically than he has in a while. Once considered one of the game's best young corners, Webb has been plagued by injuries in recent years. However, Harbaugh said Friday that the veteran has practiced well and he is excited about Webb'sprogresss.

Webb returning to form and joining Smith, Arrington, and Melvin when he's healthy would give the Ravens four corners they feel good about.

"I feel like we have a talented bunch. We have some depth, too," Arrington said. "Ultimately, it's easier said than done [if] everybody stays healthy, because you would like to definitely try to build that continuity as a group. Like I said, it's always easier said than done. It's the nature of the beast in this business."

Beyond staying healthy, the Ravens' defensive backs know they also have to communicate and tackle better. Both were issues last season that team officials hope have been addressed. A former Houston Texan, Lewis is known as a solid and cerebral safety. Hill, meanwhile, was one of the Ravens' best players all summer and has looked much more comfortable in year two with the team. He was sidelined for the first six games last year and didn't enter the starting lineup until early November.

"I think Will is probably one of the top safeties in the NFL," Smith said. "That's my personal opinion, and Kendrick is a very rangy free safety. [He] can run and make plays. I think going into this game, they are going to be a difference than it was last year."

Smith, though, wasn't necessarily buying the narrative that Manning and the Broncos are a "measuring stick" for the Ravens secondary.

"Obviously, we want to go in and prove a lot in this first game, but if we went out there and it didn't go as well, I'm not going to say that's going to be the whole outlook of the season, no," he said.

But Smith does appreciate the challenge in front of the Ravens. Manning has thrown 94 touchdowns passes over the past two seasons, the most in a two-year span in league history. For all the Kubiak-inspired changes — and nobody seems quite sure what they'll be — Manning still has standout receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders at his disposal and Owen Daniels, a veteran tight end the Ravens know well.

"One of the best in the first game to test our secondary," Webb said. "What'd you say? That we struggled last year? Give us our test at the first game so we can see what we have. That'll be nice."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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