Ravens' improved secondary will face another tough test against Bengals

"It's everything," safety James Ihedigbo said of the Ravens' Week 17 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
"It's everything," safety James Ihedigbo said of the Ravens' Week 17 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. (Christopher T. Assaf, Baltimore Sun)

The Ravens secondary traveled to Detroit for its Dec. 16 game with a bull's-eye firmly affixed on it.

Not only would third-year cornerback Jimmy Smith try to blanket the planet's greatest receiver, Calvin Johnson. Critics waited gleefully for rookie safety Matt Elam to fall on his face after he made a lighthearted comment about Johnson's age and declining physicality.

Instead of suffering a nationally televised humiliation, however, the unit did solid work against the Lions, with Smith largely containing Johnson and Elam clinching a crucial win on his first career interception.

The performance illustrated the secondary's progress, from a group that hadn't learned to play together early in the season to one of the Ravens' strengths.

After a less confident outing Sunday against the New England Patriots, the spotlight will be back on the unit as the Ravens prepare for a do-or-die game against the Cincinnati Bengals and another of the NFL's best receivers, A.J. Green.

"Next week, it's everything," said safety James Ihedigbo, the secondary's verbal leader.

According to snap-by-snap grades handed out by Pro Football Focus, all three of the Ravens' regular cornerbacks rank among the NFL's top 30. Ihedigbo grades as one of the league's 20 best safeties and Elam as a steady run defender.

The group doesn't feature a star the likes of a prime Ed Reed, and none of its members rank among the league's interception leaders. But each player brings an important skill to the mix.

The members of the secondary don't attribute the unit's improvement to any magic bullet. They say they simply grew more accustomed to playing together, with each man settling into a well-defined role.

"You think about it, it's all about playing with new guys," Ihedigbo said. "The secondary is completely different than it was last year. When there's so many different parts and changing parts, it's going to take a little bit of time to mesh together."

"Experience, confidence — all those kinds of things," said defensive coordinator Dean Pees in explaining the unit's consistency in the second half of the season. "We haven't changed a whole lot, either. I think the more you get used to doing the same thing week after week after week, the better you become, the more confident you become."

Like much of the team, the secondary faced significant turnover in the offseason.

Reed, the face of the unit and a respected mentor to his younger peers, left for Houston. Bernard Pollard, the group's fiercest hitter and another commanding personality, signed with the Tennessee Titans after the Ravens cut him.

The most established returning starter, Lardarius Webb, faced an uncertain future after he lost most of 2012 to the second major knee injury of his young career.

Smith had yet to establish himself as the full-time coverage ace the Ravens projected when they drafted him in the first round in 2011.

Neither Corey Graham nor Ihedigbo had ever started for a full season. In fact, the Ravens signed veteran safety Michael Huff thinking he, not Ihedigbo, would likely fill Reed's shoes.

Elam was a first-round pick out of Florida but a rookie.

The doubts about this untested group intensified after a disastrous opener in Denver, where Peyton Manning threw seven touchdown passes in a 49-27 bludgeoning. Several times in that loss, Ravens defensive backs stared at one another in confusion as Denver receivers streaked into uncovered expanses.

Pees has dismissed criticisms of that performance as overblown.

"You guys are so far off on the opening game, you have no idea," he said last week. "You have no idea. I told you before, out of 67 plays, 60 of them we played Denver better than we've ever played them. We played seven plays horrendous, but 60 plays were good."

Regardless, those seven plays were bad enough that the team's defensive backs lambasted themselves as much as any outside critic.

"Man, we won't think about that first game in Denver," Webb said.

A "bump in the road," Ihedigbo called it.

By the season's third week against the Houston Texans, he said, the unit began to feel more comfortable. The coverage miscues became rare, and each player took on a more distinct identity.

In many ways, that began with Ihedigbo, who entered training camp as an afterthought but seized the strong safety job with his vicious hits and vocal leadership. He emerged as the new defensive signal caller in the backfield.

The climb from anonymity was nothing new for a player who entered the NFL as a rookie free agent out of Massachusetts and didn't make his first interception until this year.

"I was challenged to fill a void at safety," he said. "They thought other people could do it, and I was overlooked. I was more of a security blanket, but I knew from the beginning of the year that I was going to be a starter. And I knew I could help lead this team and this defense. It was just a matter of getting people to view me as I view myself."

Elam also emerged as a formidable hitter, playing almost every snap from the second game of the season on.

The Ravens demonstrated their faith in both when they cut Huff midway through the season.

At cornerback, Smith battled the same old inconsistency early in the season, leading some analysts to wonder whether he'd ever figure it out. In the second half, however, he has become the Ravens' clear choice to cover the other team's best receiver. It's a role he seemed born for given his ideal size and fluid feet.

After starting the opener, Graham has served as the team's third cornerback but has also delivered a string of excellent performances in the second half.

Webb, meanwhile, acknowledges that he's spent the season regaining confidence in his repaired right knee. He has looked close to the Webb of old in recent weeks — not the pure cover corner Smith is but a versatile defender who can blitz and stuff running backs near the line of scrimmage.

"Physical," Ihedigbo said when asked for a word to define the group's play. Not that they're a crew of hard personalities off the field.

"We got jokers. We got clowns," Ihedigbo continued. "Lardarius Webb is a joker. Jimmy Smith? You can't even really take him seriously on game day. We've got a lot of characters, but we jell together great."

In fact these guys do seem to enjoy singing one another's praises. Here's Webb's man-by-man scouting report:

"You think about Jimmy Smith, he's playing Pro Bowl level. He's playing high-level ball. You can tell that off last week [against Detroit]."

"Matt Elam, he's just growing each week. He's grown up. He's not that little pup anymore."

"Corey's a baller, ever since he's been here. He's just a playmaker. He gets his hands on the ball."

"James Ihedigbo, he's the enforcer. People are scared to catch the ball, because they know he's back there. I'm impressed with how he took that leadership role. He's the leader in that back end. He takes control when he needs to."

For all the good vibes, the unit didn't play its best game against the Patriots. A pass-interference penalty on Smith set up New England's first touchdown in the 41-7 rout. And Patriots receivers burst open too easily on short routes. Even so, the secondary helped hold Tom Brady to modest numbers — 14 of 26 for 172 yards, the great quarterback's second-lowest total of the season.

The unit will try to do the same against the Bengals and Green, who put up 151 yards (aided by an unlikely Hail Mary catch) in the Ravens' Nov. 10 win in Baltimore.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who consistently has praised his secondary in recent weeks, did little to downplay the challenge represented by the 6-foot-4 Green.

"I think I was the first guy who came out two years ago and said I thought he was the best receiver in football," Harbaugh said. "So, I'm on record with the A.J. Green kudos. I'll stand on that. He's a great player."