The depth and stability of the secondary was not supposed to be among the question marks for the Ravens going into the 2018 season. The unit seemed poised to toss aside the painful memory of the way last season ended, particularly with the return of cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young from injury.
What the Ravens and their fans remember from 2017 is wide receiver Tyler Boyd’s 49-yard catch and run for a game-winning touchdown with 44 seconds remaining at M&T Bank Stadium, giving the Cincinnati Bengals a 31-27 victory and causing the Ravens to miss the NFL playoffs for the third straight year.
The miscommunication and miscues on the play were numerous and mind-numbing for the Ravens, who seventh months later were still being asked to talk about it.
“We still have a little bitterness in our mouth, as far as how the end of the season went,” veteran cornerback Brandon Carr said early in training camp. “But at the same time, we went out there and produced and played some good ball. It’s just a matter of stringing along 16 weeks this year.”
But now, after a strong preseason by the secondary, questions remain.
Will the absence of Smith after being suspended by the NFL for violating the league’s personal conduct policy help give experience to others who might have been backups, or will it expose the team's lack of a true shutdown corner?
Even when Smith is eligible to return, will a 30-year-old player coming off an almost miraculous recovery from a torn Achilles late last season be able to stay injury-free, something he has done only twice since he was drafted by the Ravens in 2011?
Will second-year cornerback Marlon Humphrey continue his ascent after an impressive rookie season, and will Young regain his rookie form of 2016 after missing last season with a torn ACL? Has age finally caught up with safety Eric Weddle and Carr?
Weddle, the scraggly bearded sage who is going into his 12th NFL season, seems confident of a better performance by the group in 2018.
“I think two years ago, when I got here, it was a transition of sorts with the secondary,” Weddle said during training camp. “A lot of moving parts. Who was going to be here? Who was not going to be here? It wasn’t really good play. Over the last couple years, we’ve stepped up our play as a secondary making plays, and we’ve just got to continue to get better.”
Speaking before Smith’s suspension was announced, Weddle said that “continuity” will be a key.
“We have our secondary intact from last year,” he said. "We get Tavon back. Tony [Jefferson] is back healthy. Jimmy, coming off Achilles, I don’t know how he’s back out here full speed, but he is, and he looks amazing. Those things are always a positive when you’re going into another year.
“Brandon being in year two [with the Ravens] myself being year three. In the same system with ‘Wink’ [defensive coordinator Don Martindale] taking over, there are no drawbacks. There’s only positive energy and positive schematic changes that are going to help us as a group. We’re excited.”
Safety Tony Jefferson said the difference this season in his communication with Weddle during training camp and the preseason has been “light-years, man” compared with last year, his first with the Ravens after four years with the Arizona Cardinals.
“We’re building each day,” Jefferson said. “I’m learning more and more every day, obviously being with a guy like Weddle with what he’s done, picking his brain. He’s making me a complete football player, and I’ll always appreciate that.”
The Ravens pass defense was one of the team’s high points to an otherwise disappointing 2017 season, particularly in light of the injuries that forced a seemingly constant reshuffling of the lineup. The Ravens led the NFL with 22 interceptions, with a potential 23rd by Weddle negated by a holding call against Humphrey five plays before Boyd’s touchdown.
Overall, the Ravens finished 10th in pass defense.
The play in the secondary during the preseason was promising. The Ravens made an NFL-best nine interceptions, including a pair on back-to-back possessions against the Miami Dolphins, with two made by cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste.
But Smith is out for the first month, Jean-Baptiste is on injured reserve with a broken forearm suffered in the fifth and final preseason game, and rookie safety DeShon Elliott, a sixth-round pick, is on injured reserve with a fractured forearm suffered in the fourth preseason game.
Still the unit considers itself well-stocked.
“It’s a joy to see, primarily because you’re the older guy so you kind of feel like, ‘Hey, we kind of taught these guys the right way,’ and these guys are just coming on along,’ ” Jefferson said. “We have a bunch of depth, a bunch of young guys who stepped up and played well in critical situations, and that’s how you build a championship team. You have guys who are bought in and guys who follow their leaders.”