Ravens head coach John Harbaugh discusses cornerback Marlon Humphrey’s readiness to start. (Childs Walker/Baltimore Sun video)
One of Marlon Humphrey’s qualities that Ravens players and coaches have frequently praised since the first time the rookie first-round draft pick took the field as a pro is his intelligence, so it was hardly surprising to hear that the cornerback knows exactly what to expect Sunday night when he starts against the Pittsburgh Steelers in place of Jimmy Smith.
“Last game, I gave up a few plays,” Humphrey said after the Ravens practiced Wednesday. “I’m sure if there’s a weak link they have to pick out, it would definitely be me. [Ben Roethlisberger] likes to throw it up. He’s a great quarterback, so I’m sure if he has to take those shots, it will probably be at me.”
Humphrey’s teammates and coaches also rave about his confidence, and the rookie spent much of his five-plus-minute talk with reporters downplaying what awaits him Sunday night at Heinz Field. He praised Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown, who leads the league in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches, but he made clear he’s not approaching this week much differently from his previous 12 games even though the circumstances are now entirely different.
The rookie out of Alabama has played just over 38 percent of the Ravens’ defensive snaps this year, substituting in on different series for either Smith or Brandon Carr. But Smith’s season ended Sunday when he tore his left Achilles tendon against the Detroit Lions and was subsequently suspended the next day for four games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
The Ravens’ plans for life without Smith and for stopping the Steelers’ high-powered offense Sunday will lean heavily on Humphrey.
Somebody can catch 10 passes on me and that 11th time I get in front of him, I’m thinking, I still can guard this guy.
Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey
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“I guess I’m excited. I don’t know. I don’t really get too excited,” Humphrey said. “Once I get out there playing and I’ll make a play or something, that’s really when the emotion comes from me. I’m just playing the game, making plays, being out there with my brothers. I’ll get more excited as the clock finally ticks and starts on Sunday.”
Smith’s season-ending ankle injury in Week 14 last year contributed to a December slide that kept the team out of the playoffs. With Smith not available for the Ravens’ previous trip to Heinz Field in their penultimate game of the 2016 regular season, the Ravens had to rely on cornerbacks Tavon Young, Shareece Wright and Jerraud Powers.
The defense held steady until the fourth quarter, when Roethlisberger led the Steelers on three touchdown drives and threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Brown with 13 seconds to go to give Pittsburgh a 31-27 win and the AFC North championship. The Ravens secondary was powerless to stop Roethlisberger when it counted as the quarterback completed eight of 10 passes for 75 yards and the two incompletions were spikes to stop the clock.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh has said on several occasions this week that the team is now better equipped to deal with Smith’s absence and that’s partly because it now has Humphrey, who has hardly looked overwhelmed when facing receivers such as the Cincinnati Bengals’ A.J. Green and the Green Bay Packers’ Davante Adams this season.
Sam Koch was a very good NFL punter in his first eight seasons with the Ravens. Then his detail-obsessed personality led him to explorations of misdirection and spin that pushed his career to a new level.
“He’s going to be tested. There’s going to be good moments, and there’s always when you play that position — I don’t care whether you’re a rookie or a veteran — – you’re going to have moments where they’ll make a play,” Harbaugh said. “The league is built that way; it’s built for playmakers to make plays in the passing game, and that’s just going to happen, and you’re going to have to bounce back and make the next play and understand how that works. Marlon seems like he has a good understanding of that. He plays hard, he plays focused, he’s developing his technique. He’s a very talented guy. I’m looking forward to seeing how he does. I think he’ll do well.”
But the onus going forward to replace Smith won’t entirely be on the rookie first-round pick. Carr, a veteran, has had a solid season lining up opposite Smith. The Ravens also feel good about young cornerbacks Maurice Canady and Jaylen Hill, and they promoted Stanley Jean-Baptiste from the practice squad earlier this week.
“We have a special group. Ever since I’ve been here, since April, the guys work. Their work ethic is incredible. Their confidence is off the charts,” Carr said Wednesday. “Everybody is waiting for this time where their number gets called. Unfortunately, a good guy and playmaker like Jimmy went down, but, at the same time, we have a lot of incredible guys in that back end that’s chomping at the bit to get back there and make their play, as well.”
Canady’s playing time has increased each week since the 2016 sixth-round pick’s return from a knee injury. The Ravens have used him primarily in the slot along with safeties Lardarius Webb and Anthony Levine Sr., but they also feel comfortable playing the 6-foot-1, 193-pound corner on the outside behind Carr and Humphrey.
“It’s always tough, but we’re in the National Football League,” Canady said. “It’s always next man up. They’ve been holding the fort down for me, so I can only do the same.”
Hill, an undrafted rookie out of Jacksonville State, has been waiting for an opportunity after he starred in the preseason. He missed the first six games with a hamstring injury and he’s been a healthy scratch the past three weeks. At 5 feet 10 and 178 pounds, he’d likely be used exclusively in the slot.
“Just being here, I see as an opportunity,” Hill said. “I feel like it’s my job as a player to be ready at any moment. I just take that mindset into every day, so that times like this, I’ll be prepared.”
Humphrey, meanwhile, has been preparing for this opportunity for a long time. After redshirting his freshman season at Alabama, he started all 29 games in which he played over his final two college seasons. He played in two national championship games for the Crimson Tide before the Ravens made the 6-0, 197-pound cornerback the 16th overall pick in the 2017 draft.
On Humphrey’s first defensive play from scrimmage in an NFL regular-season game, he found himself matched up with Green, a six-time Pro Bowl selection who has terrorized the Ravens during his career.
“It seems I’ve never really played at a stage much bigger than the national championship. I guess the Super Bowl would top that. Hopefully, we can get there this year. We’ll see, but Bama definitely prepared me very well,” Humphrey said. “The NFL has been pretty similar. The only thing is you’re going against some of the best athletes in the league like Antonio Brown. In that matter, it’s a little bit different, but my mindset will still be the same.”
After Smith went down late in the second quarter of Sunday’s game against the Lions, quarterback Matthew Stafford went after Humphrey and had nice success doing it. Humphrey gave up five catches for 116 yards and was called for pass interference on one of the completions. Veteran Marvin Jones Jr. outdueled Humphrey for gains of 42 and 46 yards.
“My high school coach told me, ‘You want to stay even keel. You don’t want to get too high; you don’t want to get too low. But if you do get to either one, you want to come back as even as you can get,’” Humphrey said. “Somebody can catch 10 passes on me and that 11th time I get in front of him, I’m thinking, I still can guard this guy. That’s kind of my mindset as far as that goes.”