Baltimore Sun Ravens beat writer Jeff Zrebiec talks about the impact of cornerback Jimmy Smith going down for the season and the players who need to step up to fill his position. (Kevin Richardson/BSMG)
Standing calmly in the pocket with time to scan the field, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had an inviting view of the Ravens' secondary last Sunday.
From his vantage point, Roethlisberger easily saw the holes in a defensive backfield playing without top cornerback Jimmy Smith. He could also see a secondary weakened by the free-agent departure of nickel back Corey Graham in March. Roethlisberger threw six touchdown passes and no interceptions during a 43-23 rout of the Ravens at Heinz Field.
The Ravens are dealing with a crisis on defense as they try to solve the problems of an injury-riddled secondary heading into Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans. Having allowed a combined 560 passing yards over the past two games, the Ravens have dropped to 24th in the NFL in pass defense. They're surrendering 263.2 yards per game and have given up 13 touchdown passes through nine games.
"The Ravens just aren't good enough on the back end to hold up when the quarterback has too much time to throw the football," said former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, an ESPN analyst. "It becomes very difficult for them to match up and compete with a team like the Steelers that has a good quarterback and talented receivers.
"If you don't trust your safeties to protect your corners and you don't have that shutdown guy with Jimmy Smith hurt, then you're in serious trouble. It just shows how valuable a guy like Jimmy is. And you can't go back to those Ed Reed years back in the day when you could take chances. It's obviously changed a lot for them.
Since the start of the season, the Ravens have had five different starting cornerbacks and are about to break in a new one Sunday against Titans rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
They reacted to the Steelers' loss by cutting cornerbacks Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown and replacing them with Danny Gorrer (claimed off waivers from the Detroit Lions) and undrafted rookie Tramain Jacobs (promoted from the practice squad). Gorrer may start opposite veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb against the Titans and Jacobs will make his NFL regular-season debut.
"I think everybody will adjust well," Webb said Friday. "Everybody's on the same page. We're communicating well. The guys had a great week of practice.
"I think we're going to do a great job back there. Yes, we all see a turnaround coming. We just have to go out and grind and work our butts off to get better on Sunday."
The Ravens have struggled for a variety of reasons besides losing Smith, who had his damaged foot repaired Thursday in Charlotte, N.C. by renowned orthopedist Dr. Robert Anderson.
A lingering lower back injury has affected Webb's mobility and flexibility. He's been targeted repeatedly, allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 28 of 41 passes thrown in his direction for 373 yards and one touchdown for a 105.0 passer rating.
"I could probably get better myself," Webb said. "Speaking about the group, me first, I've got to get myself together."
The Ravens have allowed 13 touchdown passes, but have just five interceptions with two apiece by rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. The only defensive back who's intercepted a pass is Smith, who had one before his season ended.
"We need to make more plays, we haven't made that many in the first nine weeks," said free safety Darian Stewart, who's allowed quarterbacks to complete 17 of 23 passes against him for 282 yards and one touchdown. "We've only got one pick. We've definitely got to pick that up. Anytime the ball is in our area and we can make a play on it, they're precious moments and we need to come down with them.
"I feel like we haven't peaked yet. The last two weeks have been rough. We're nowhere where we could be."
Drafted in the first round last year, Matt Elam was supposed to improve markedly this season after returning to his natural strong safety position. He's often played out of position, though, at nickel back because of injuries to teammates.
Elam has missed a dozen tackles, more than any defensive back in the NFL, as he's frequently whiffed in the open field. Elam has allowed quarterbacks to complete 17 of 24 passes thrown in his direction for 277 yards and one touchdown. He has just three pass deflections and one forced fumble.
"Elam's a downhill, physical player," said former NFL safety Matt Bowen, who writes for Bleacher Report. "He's an enforcer type. Just because he hasn't been making plays doesn't mean he won't ever make plays. He's clearly playing out of position and isn't a nickel guy.
"There's nothing wrong with Elam, but he's not a centerfielder. The missed tackles, that's all technique, not wrapping or taking the wrong angle."
The Ravens have been short-handed at cornerback after Graham signed a four-year, $16 million contract with his hometown Buffalo Bills.
"The Ravens are missing that proven nickel guy big time," Johnson said. "They really haven't replaced Corey Graham. He was a very underrated guy for them last season. That hurts."
Webb missed the entire preseason and the majority of the first month of the season. Asa Jackson injured his toe against the Indianapolis Colts and is on injured reserve-designated to return. Jackson isn't eligible to return until a Dec. 7 game against the Miami Dolphins.
And now the Ravens don't have Smith, who was emerging as one of the top young cornerbacks in the NFL before he got hurt.
"We'll be fine as a team," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Friday. "We'll recover. We have good players at every position, and we'll pick up the slack as a group and as a unit. We always do. It happens all around the league."
For three consecutive games, the Ravens have allowed a receiver to eclipse the 100-yard mark. That includes Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (11 catches, 144 yards, one touchdown), Bengals wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (five catches, 125 yards) and Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White (nine catches, 100 yards).
The most infuriating play for defensive coordinator Dean Pees against the Steelers was how Antonio Brown juked Chykie Brown and then stiff-armed new starting safety Will Hill to the ground on a 54-yard touchdown.
"The common thread is just 'stay on top,' " Pees said. "There isn't any magic. We're playing really good football most of the time on defense, but it's the same thing: We cannot give up a big play. I don't care whether it's Roethlisberger or who it is, you just can't give up a big play.
"They can complete the ball, that doesn't really bother me so much, but the fact that we missed the tackle then in tight man coverage is just inexcusable. We have to coach it better, we have to play it better and just be smarter in those situations."
Although the Ravens have expressed optimism that they'll upgrade the secondary through their personnel moves and coaching, it remains to be seen how they'll fare in the weeks to come when they face proven quarterbacks like the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees and the San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers.
"You can't hide anyone in today's NFL," Bowen said. "Coaches are too smart. When they see a way to take advantage of someone, they're going to do it. Those coaches are up in the box watching every single play and they get on the headsets immediately when they see someone get exposed."
Another change Pees instituted is declaring that Hill will remain in the lineup after making his starting debut last week after serving a six-game suspension for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy earlier this season. A former New York Giants starter, Hill is the Ravens' most proven starter other than Webb.
"We got a little complacent last week," Hill said. "We felt as though we could shut them out, but we just got complacent instead of staying on top of our game. It's just a mindset. We've got to feel like the ball is ours and own it."