Ravens safety Chuck Clark talks about replacing the injured Tony Jefferson against the Bengals.
As safety Tony Jefferson was carted to the locker room in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 26-23 overtime victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens lost not only another member of last year’s top-ranked defense, but a respected veteran.
Jefferson’s injury, a torn ACL with possible additional ligament damage, will sideline him for the rest of the season and potentially longer. In his absence, the Ravens defense will depend on younger, unproven players to help fix a unit that ranks fourth-worst against the pass, allowing 280 yards per game.
Reserve safeties Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott will be tapped to fill Jefferson’s void, starting Sunday at home against the winless Cincinnati Bengals.
“A lot of it will depend on the game itself,” coach John Harbaugh said when asked how many snaps each of the young safeties will play. “How it plays out, what they present us with personnel-wise in the game, types of plays they start running, what kind of game it becomes in turns of choosing what group you put on the field, [and] when [to do so].
"You can’t really predict what the numbers will be exactly. I think they’ll be fairly balanced. [It] could go in one direction or another, but [I] expect both those guys to play quite a bit in the game.”
Clark, a 2017 sixth-round draft pick out of Virginia Tech, is likely to start against Cincinnati. When Jefferson missed two games last season because of injury, Clark started and played 100% of the defensive snaps. In two starts, against the Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs, Clark, 24, recorded eight tackles, a pass breakup and one interception. The pick came against league Most Valuable Player Patrick Mahomes.
“It’s huge to capitalize on [the opportunity]," Clark said. “It’s the game of football. It’s all about the next man up. You can look around the league and there’s a bunch of situations like that. ... I feel really prepared. I’ve been waiting for this. It’s three years in the coming, so now that it’s here, it’s time to take advantage.”
Teammates and coaches have raved about Clark’s intellect, with safety Earl Thomas III going so far as to call him the smartest player in the defensive backs room.
“I saw that first day in football school," Thomas said. “He was on it. He was just like a starter. I was like, ‘Bro, why would they bring me in and they got this guy?’ ... He’s probably going to take on Tony’s role with making checks and communicating, and I’ll help out as well.”
Sunday would be Elliott’s first extensive playing time in a regular-season game. The second-year safety missed his rookie season after breaking his forearm in the preseason last year. He’s played sparingly on defense this season, with most of his contributions coming on special teams.
Elliott, 22, who Harbaugh said Monday is “chomping at the bit to play,” could help as a playmaker for a defense that is tied for 11th in the league with four interceptions.
During his junior year at Texas, Elliott recorded six interceptions, tied for fourth in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Elliott entered the NFL draft following that season and the Ravens selected him in the sixth round.
Players have spoken glowingly of Jefferson as a player and leader, while also expressing confidence in Clark and Elliott, who have spent time learning under Jefferson, Thomas and former Ravens safety Eric Weddle.
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While the team loses Jefferson’s experience, Sunday marks an opportunity for inexperienced players to contribute and take another step in their development for a defense still searching for improvement.
“They love Tony, so they’ll rally around that,” Harbaugh said. “But they’ll rally around the two guys because they have a lot of respect for those two players, for sure. They know that Chuck and DeShon are going to give us everything they have. I do think that. I think it’ll be a point of positive growth for us in a way, turning that negative into a positive."