When the Ravens returned to practice Tuesday after their bye week, safety and team leader Eric Weddle made sure to get cornerback Jimmy Smith’s attention.
Smith has probably been the Ravens’ best player through nine games, playing through a painful Achilles tendon injury to shut down opposing receivers and score two defensive touchdowns. Weddle, though, wanted to remind Smith that if the Ravens were going to make a playoff push, the team’s cornerbacks would have to help lead the way.
“We all needed for him to take that next step and he has to continue that,” Weddle said of Smith. “I told him [that] as good as he has been playing, I need him to be even better these next seven games and take that approach. We all do to get what we want to get accomplished and have a shot in December to make those games relevant. I am proud of those guys. They have to keep it up, and when they play well and when the back end plays well, we always have a chance to win.”
Little has gone according to plan this season for the Ravens, who take a 4-5 record into Sunday’s game against the Green Bay Packers (5-4) at Lambeau Field. However, the play of the team’s cornerback group, headed by Smith, free-agent acquisition Brandon Carr and rookie first-round draft pick Marlon Humphrey, has validated the organization’s decision to make fixing the secondary one of its offseason priorities.
The Ravens are allowing just 184.7 passing yards per game, the third-lowest total in the NFL. They also have a league-leading 13 interceptions. There are many factors that have contributed to those numbers, but it has started with the luxury of having three outside cornerbacks who can run, cover and play physically.
“All those guys have panned out,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We have not had one guy not pan out. That is a credit to everybody involved in that — scouts and coaches and the players themselves. But you know what? They have to keep playing. We have a big challenge. We have a really good receiving corps in front of us coming up here, and we are going to have to cover those guys.”
It wasn’t too long ago when a receiving corps like the Packers’, featuring Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb, would be a significant mismatch for the Ravens, who have had all sorts of problems in recent years keeping their top corners on the field and finding competent outside cover guys across from Smith.
With Smith limited to 11 games last year, the Ravens had to rely on Tavon Young, Shareece Wright and Jerraud Powers. It marked the second straight year in which the Ravens needed to start four corners. In 2015, they started seven cornerbacks, including Asa Jackson, Chykie Brown, Rashaan Melvin, Anthony Levine Sr. and Dominique Franks.
This year, Smith and Carr have started all nine games. Humphrey has been worked in for three or four drives each game to give Smith’s Achilles a break. Even after losing Young to a season-ending injury in June, the Ravens have a host of slot options, including safeties Levine and Lardarius Webb, second-year player Maurice Canady and rookie Jaylen Hill.
It’s not quite an embarrassment of riches, but it’s far more cornerback depth than Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees have had.
“It’s really been great having the continuity because it’s kind of like each week, you can go in there and take something maybe you did the week before and you can tweak it a little bit, just change it, but it’s still the same thing. … Before, a change like that with somebody new would have just altered it. So the continuity has really been helpful,” Pees said. “Just with calling a game, if you’re not trying to hide somebody or you’re not trying to overcome and not put somebody in a really tough spot, you really feel like we’ve got a chance to cover them. Whether we do or don’t, you feel confident that the guys are going to do it. It’s a lot different calling a game. I think we’ve been much more aggressive as far as pressures and things like that just because we felt like we had the ability to cover out there.”
Smith, a first-round pick in 2011, is having probably the best season of his career. Playing on a sore Achilles, he has allowed just 14 catches for 106 yards and no touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus, which grades him as the fifth-best cornerback in the NFL. Quarterbacks have just a 27.9 rating, the lowest in the league, when targeting Smith, per the website. That explains why, in recent games, teams are barely throwing the ball to Smith’s side of the field.
Carr, a 10-year veteran who has started every game in his NFL career, has brought durability, leadership and solid play in his first year as a Raven, and has been a significant upgrade over past options across from Smith. According to Pro Football Focus, Carr has allowed 22 catches for 299 yards and two touchdowns. He is tied for the team lead with three interceptions.
Humphrey has been as advertised, giving the Ravens some more speed, confidence and physicality on the outside. He’s been targeted 27 times and allowed only 13 catches for 141 yards, per Pro Football Focus. The Ravens are searching for ways to get him onto the field more.
“It wasn’t ever too hard for me to accept not starting. I’ve just watched these two guys in front of me and seen the plays that they make,” Humphrey said. “If anything, I’m grateful. I don’t think there are many teams that have a third corner that doesn’t play nickel that gets in the game and gets any reps at all. Usually, it’s left corner, right corner, and they don’t come out of the game. Here, the coaches have confidence in me to go in there and play. … I’ve enjoyed my roles — a little bit of special teams, a little bit of defense. It’s been a good year for me.”
Humphrey said watching Smith up close has given him an even better appreciation of how to play press coverage and be physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage. Carr has reinforced for him the importance of constantly working on technique.
The defensive back group has become extremely close, getting together every week at a player’s house to watch “Thursday Night Football” and to discuss on- and off-the-field matters. However, they’ve done most of their talking on the field.
The cornerbacks have been the strength of the Ravens, and they all insist that they can — and must — play even better.
“To this point, we’ve played some pretty solid ball. Our goal is to make as many plays as we can on the back end and we push each other, from the day we walked into the locker room until now,” Carr said. “We’re the same type of corners, and we have the same type of philosophies and mentalities. We just want to be the best unit, the best individuals that we can be.
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“But we still have a lot of work to do. We’ve got seven more weeks. We’ve got some good receiving corps to play, especially this week coming up. We still got seven weeks to close the deal for ourselves.”