After frustrating season, healthier Lardarius Webb is finding previous form

After struggling for most of this season, Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb has played better in recent weeks.

The text message from Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees to veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb arrived early Monday morning, an affirmation of how Webb performed during a losing cause last Sunday against the Houston Texans.

Although the Ravens endured a costly loss that damaged their playoff outlook, Webb wasn't to blame. He effectively shadowed Texans star wide receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, leaping into the air to knock down second-quarter fade pass in the end zone and tackling aggressively. Webb allowed just three catches for 21 yards and no touchdowns on the seven passes thrown in his direction, a bit remniscent of his former shutdown form.


"I actually graded the film on the plane on the way back, and then I came in and watched the film again on Monday morning and I texted him right after I got done and said, 'That's the best you've played all year. You look like you're kind of getting back to the Lardarius that I know,'" Pees said. "I think that is a very, very positive thing about him. Hey, we need him right here at the end. I was very pleased with the way he played."

Still, it's been an extremely long, frustrating season for Webb, due to a lingering back injury that's just started to fully cooperate as the Ravens prepare for Sunday's regular season finale against the Cleveland Browns.


In an interview with The Baltimore Sun this week, Webb acknowledged that he suffered nerve damage to his back during the second day of training camp. It was a painful injury that affected his speed and explosiveness. A hematoma kept pressing on the nerve and took months to fully heal. During that time, Webb's leg muscle atrophied and prevented him from running full speed.

That medical situation rendered Webb vulnerable against wide receivers, prompting him to play more conservatively than he had in the past. That contributed to Webb allowing quarterbacks to complete 45 of 66 passes thrown in his direction (68.2 percent) for 592 yards, including 190 after the catch, two touchdowns and a 106.4 cumulative quarterback rating. He's ranked 73rd among NFL cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.

Webb missed most of the season's first four games and was pulled in the first game against the Browns when he displayed no recovery speed to chase down receivers. But that's changed.

"Yeah, I feel awesome," Webb said. "It was late in the season and everything, but I do feel good now. I've been through a long season. I started off on the back burner with a back injury. I've just been trying to catch up the whole time and get it right eventually. Now, I'm right.

"That's how nerve injuries do, they take time. I had to fight through it all year with the good and the bad. It would be perfect going into the playoffs to play your best game. Hopefully, we can continue playing and win this game and go into the playoffs and keep improving on the back end. It's been a long year, a humbling year. I've been through a lot of adversity since I've been in the NFL. That's been my career."

Webb, 29, missed the preseason with the back injury after undergoing hernia surgery during the offseason. Webb has also had to come back from torn anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees in his six-year NFL career.

Webb was voted the Ravens' recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award this year, with teammates recognizing him for his perseverance. A complaint about his health would be Webb's first.

"He never complained at all," cornerback Anthony Levine said. "Me and Webb are pretty close and he tells me a lot, but he never complained. He told me he was hurting, but that's it. He always gave it his all. He's a leader. When he's right, we're all right.


"He showed us he could battle through adversity, no matter how bad it was going for him. He would come out every week fighting, fighting and fighting. As soon as the game was over Sunday, I said, 'Bro, you back.' He was out there playing ball. He wasn't out there worrying about anything. You could see it in his confidence and his whole demeanor that everything has changed."

Since a rough performance in a loss to the San Diego Chargers four games ago that could block the Ravens from making the playoffs due to a head-to-head tiebreaker, Webb has improved markedly. Against the Chargers, he allowed four catches on five passes thrown his direction by quarterback Philip Rivers for 37 yards and a touchdown.

Since that game, Webb has been targeted a dozen times in the past three weeks. He's allowed six catches during that span for a combined 58 yards and no touchdowns.

"Lardarius is coming on," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We're talking less about it, so that's probably a good thing. He looks more and more like his old self, as far as the way he's moving and running and changing direction. He has a little pop back in his speed. I'm really happy with how he's doing, and hopefully he can play his best game on Sunday."

Webb admitted it stung his pride to allow so many catches and yards this season. At times, Webb was essentially helpless to stop receivers from running past him or react in time to disrupt passes. Teammates have noticed a positive change in Webb during the second half of the season, though.

"I feel like Webbie has been back for a while now," strong safety Darian Stewart said. "It's good to have his presence on the field. We definitely respect him. You keep coming at him; he's going to make his plays. He's a good football player, a smart football player and our leader. He's a great person to be around."


Heading into the final week of the regular season, Webb hasn't intercepted a pass. That's the first time he hasn't intercepted at least one pass since his rookie year in 2009, when he was selected in the third round of the NFL draft out of Nicholls State (La.).

"When you're on the sideline, you need to get well and sometimes you got to play even if you're hurt," Webb said. "If you're hurt and you do play and you're not playing good, well, '[Crap], you knew I was hurt.' The Ravens were awesome with me. They were patient with me. I'm back now and ready to go. I'm ready to play Cleveland."

Because of Webb's hefty $12 million salary-cap figure in 2015, there are scenarios where Sunday could be his final game in a Ravens uniform unless his deal is adjusted during the offseason.

Both sides are motivated, though, to work out a financial compromise. There's a recent precedent for the Ravens and Webb being capable of finding middle ground with his contract.

Prior to the first game of this season, the Ravens restructured Webb's five-year, $50 million contract to reduce his hit against the salary cap. The Ravens converted $4 million of Webb's $7.5 million base salary into a signing bonus to save $3 million in cap space this year, to $7.504 million, and reduced his base salary to $3 million.

The future years of the deal now count an additional $1 million against the salary cap,, with base salaries of $8 million each in 2015 and 2016. And his salary cap figure in 2017 is $10.5 million with a base salary of $8.5 million.


Conversations between the Ravens and Webb's representatives are expected to take place during the offseason, prior to the start of free agency in March. Webb is hopeful something will get worked out, but that's not his focus right now.

"I'm part of this organization, and I love this organization," Webb said. "I would love to be here forever, and I'll do whatever I can to help this team out in any way possible. I'm going to play the game, not worry about anything else. That's for upstairs [Ravens management] to worry about.

"I'm just going to do my part. I'm not even thinking about that. No matter where I play ball, when I feel good, I can play with the best, with any receiver. I just have to be healthy."