For 2 ½ weeks leading up to Sunday’s season opener against the Buffalo Bills, discussion of the Ravens’ secondary centered on the man who would not play rather than those who would.
Jimmy Smith carries that sort of gravitational pull. Ravens coach John Harbaugh once said Smith had the talent to become the best cornerback in the NFL. And the team’s pass coverage has repeatedly faltered in his absence. So when news came that Smith would be suspended the first four weeks of the 2018 season for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, anxiety and gloom naturally followed.
The Ravens insisted they could thrive without their best cornerback. Marlon Humphrey was ready to build on a promising rookie season. Tavon Young was back from injury to wreak havoc from the slot. And old reliable, Brandon Carr, was there to keep everyone steady.
But Smith’s co-stars still had to prove it in a game, and they did just that with a smothering performance against the Bills.
Humphrey, Young and Carr ranked as three of the four highest graded Ravens defenders Sunday, according to the scouting website Pro Football Focus. They and quarterback Joe Flacco were the headliners in a 47-3 rout at M&T Bank Stadium.
“We’ve got dominant corners,” Ravens safety Tony Jefferson said. “Obviously, we don’t have Jimmy, but those guys are dominant players.”
Humphrey led the team with four passes defended. Carr intercepted a pass and nearly returned it for a touchdown. Young sacked Bills quarterback Nathan Peterman twice in the first quarter.
The Baltimore corners controlled the game so thoroughly that Zay Jones led Buffalo’s receivers with a measly three catches for 26 yards.
The Ravens know they’ll face a sterner test Thursday evening in Cincinnati, where they’ll be asked to neutralize longtime nemesis A.J. Green and former first-round pick John Ross, one of the fastest players ever tested at the NFL scouting combine. Their playoff ambitions died on the last day of 2017 because they could not cover another Bengals receiver, Tyler Boyd, on an all-or-nothing fourth down.
“The name of the game is get better every week,” Carr said. “Last week is over and done.”
But the Ravens believe they enter this season with a deeper, more mature secondary capable of rising to such challenges.
For Humphrey, the team’s 2017 first-round pick, this year brings a chance to join the elite at one of the NFL’s glamour positions. The former Alabama star has every measurable tool along with the innate confidence shared by most great cover men. He just has to perform every week now that he’ll be matched with the most dangerous playmakers in the sport.
“I knew Marlon would be the guy he is,” Carr said. “He’s steady evolving into a lock-down corner, shut-down.”
For Carr, 2018 is another year to assert his remarkable dependability. The veteran helped stabilize the Ravens’ secondary last season, when he started all 16 games for the 10th straight year and tied a career high with four interceptions.
There was some thought that with Humphrey’s development, the Ravens might move on from Carr after last season. But Harbaugh, knowing the volatility the team has coped with at corner, always wanted to hold on to him. Sure enough, Carr was ready to start and play well when Smith’s suspension hit.
“He’s a true veteran,” Young said. “I always talk to ‘B-Carr’ and he gives me tips. I feel like he can play even longer because of his smarts. He’s a great player. He really is. I feel like a lot of people sleep on that, but we know.”
Young probably has the most to prove after a knee injury wiped out his entire 2017 season. The former Temple star showed promise as a rookie, when he was often forced to play on the outside because of injuries to other players. But the Ravens always viewed him as a nickel corner in an ideal world, given his modest size and instinct for making plays near the line of scrimmage.
Young validated that logic with his success as a blitzer against the Bills.
“I’m happy they put me there, because they feel like I fit that position and I feel like I fit that role too,” he said.
Teammates loved watching him deliver a memorable performance after his dispiriting year on the sideline.
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“That’s our pit bull,” Jefferson said. “We’ve been waiting for Tavon to get in and do his thing. He went in there and he’s the sack leader right now. I told him I’ll be catching up to him soon.”
Despite the resounding victory, Harbaugh seemed in no mood Monday to disperse plaudits to individual players. His mind had already turned to Cincinnati, where the Bengals have tormented his teams even in the Ravens’ best seasons.
“Yes, I think so,” Harbaugh said when asked if his tape review had backed up the glowing outside assessments of his corners. “Everybody played pretty well. The opportunity, though … There are a lot of things that we can improve on. We had communication issues, we had technique issues in different areas, all three phases. Really — that’s what you focus on. You look at the good stuff and you go, ‘OK, fine.’ But then you look at the things that you need to get better at.”
Green is generally problem No. 1 when the Bengals come up on the schedule. He’s averaged 17 yards a catch and scored six touchdowns in 10 career games against the Ravens.
Humphrey possesses the size, speed and combative nature to keep up with the 6-foot-4 perennial Pro Bowl selection. Carr also expects to cover the Bengals star as he moves around the field. In fact, the Ravens — playing without Smith — limited Green to two catches for 17 yards on 10 targets in the 2017 season finale.
“You’ve just got to get hands on him,” Carr said. “These receivers, the high-caliber ones, you can’t give them opportunities to get going. We stayed on him early and often.”
Boyd was the Bengals receiver who bedeviled them in that 31-27 loss, especially on the 49-yard touchdown catch that ended the Ravens’ playoff hopes.