Practically every NFL coach will tell you that one player does not make or break a football team. That holds true for the Ravens, but members of the secondary are not shy about wishing for the return of cornerback Jimmy Smith from a nagging back injury.
"He's the No. 1 corner on this team," fellow cornerback Shareece Wright said. "He is Jimmy Smith. So whenever he's not on the field, his presence is felt. He's a physical guy, and he matches up well against certain guys. He has an advantage that a lot of guys don't have. We're a lot better when Jimmy's on the field."
The Ravens are 1-1 in their past two games without Smith. In a 27-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 20, the defensive backfield let rookie quarterback Dak Prescott complete 27 of 36 passes for 301 yards and three touchdowns. Wide receiver Dez Bryant took particular advantage of the 6-foot-2 Smith's absence, catching six passes for 80 yards and two scores.
In Sunday's 19-14 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, quarterback Andy Dalton connected on 26 of 48 throws for 283 yards and one touchdown, but clearly missed the presence of wide receiver A.J. Green, who was out with a right hamstring injury.
Still, coach John Harbaugh liked what he saw from the secondary against the Bengals.
"They did a much better job of adjusting this week than the week before," Harbaugh said. "Guys played better. We covered tighter. We were more aggressive. I just liked the mentality way better back there this week than last week. The technique was much better."
Independent analysis would seem to support Harbaugh's contention. After Pro Football Focus had singled out Wright and rookie Tavon Young for surrendering 14 catches on 17 targets for 170 yards and two scores against the Cowboys, the analytical website praised Young and Lardarius Webb for breaking up three passes while permitting 10 catches for just 97 yards against the Bengals.
Webb's day was eventful. After making his 11th consecutive start at free safety, he shifted to nickel back in the second half while Jerraud Powers stood on the sideline. But Webb said his move to nickel back was part of a package the defense had been working on.
"We just switched some things up," he said. "Different calls, trying to confuse Dalton. I feel like we did a good job."
Shifting Webb to nickel back meant Matt Elam filled in at free safety. After playing primarily on special teams in the previous three games, Elam patrolled the back end with strong safety Eric Weddle.
"They were bringing me in on sub and trying to get me going," said Elam, who sat out the first seven games of the season after knee surgery in August. "It was my fourth game back. So I'm getting into the groove, starting to feel well, starting to get healthy. I guess they're giving me the opportunity."
Weddle said he did not notice much of a difference when Elam stepped in for Webb.
"We're cover guys anyway," Weddle said. "We're moving guys around, guys that maybe haven't practiced all week in certain positions, but you've got to credit Webby. I thought he played really well for going down and playing nickel. Elo came in. We kept everything in front of us. We made plays when we needed to make them, and we played team defense. That's what it's going to come down to."
While the moves resulted in a positive outcome against the Bengals, the Ravens would be best served if Smith is able to return Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. According to Pro Football Focus, Prescott and Dalton enjoyed a collective passer rating of 114.2, while the nine previous quarterbacks had a combined passer rating of 90.5 against the Ravens.
In particular, Prescott and Dalton targeted Wright in Smith's usual right cornerback spot. Wright has allowed 10 catches for 151 yards and one touchdown and a quarterback rating of 121.8 when playing right cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus.
Webb defended his teammates' play.
"We'd love to have our lockdown cornerback. He's a big part of our defense," Webb said. "But the other guys, they're stepping up and competing. That's all we can ask for. Tavon's playing good, Shareece is in there fighting, and that's what we need."
Harbaugh was somewhat encouraged that Smith ran Saturday.
"He's close," Harbaugh said. "He's been able to run for about a week, so we'll see."
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But Harbaugh said he wants to see the secondary play like it did against the Bengals whether Smith is able to return or not.
"They played with more confidence. That is how they should play," Harbaugh said. "We have good players. We have a number of guys that can cover back there, and I would like to see them play into their capabilities, which they did a much better job of [Sunday]."
The schedule won't get much easier for the Ravens, who will clash with three top-10 passing attacks — those of the New England Patriots (No. 6), the Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 8), and the Bengals (No. 10) — in their last five games of the regular season. While the Dolphins might not have a superstar like Green or Bryant or the Steelers' Antonio Brown, they do have a more-than-serviceable trio in Jarvis Landry (64 receptions for 733 yards and two touchdowns), DeVante Parker (41-549-2) and Kenny Stills (26-480-5).
As much as the defense would love to have Smith back, Wright said the onus is on the players who are healthy and active to keep things in order until he returns.
"We need more than one guy or more than two or more than three in this league," Wright said. "When we get deep into those playoffs and we're playing a team like New England, we're going to need everybody."