In late July, Marlon Humphrey arrived in Owings Mills for the start of training camp. He knew what the Ravens had at cornerback. He liked what he saw. Who wouldn’t?
“Man, me, ‘M.P.’ [Marcus Peters], Jimmy [Smith] and Tavon [Young],” Humphrey said, “that’s a pretty strong four.”
Four months, two major injuries (not to mention a litany of minor aches and pains) and who knows how many big plays later, the Ravens (8-4) have a new top four at cornerback. Starting Sunday in Cleveland (6-6), they’ll find out just how strong it is.
It’s not a group anyone would have imagined even a week ago. Anthony Averett, a late bloomer in his fourth year in Baltimore, is now the Ravens’ top corner. Chris Westry, a training camp revelation sidelined for much of the season by injuries, is expected to start opposite him. Young, who’s played in every game this year after having two straight seasons ended by injuries, is their nickel back. Smith, toiling through another season interrupted by — yes, you guessed it — injuries, rounds out the foursome
“Next-man mentality,” Averett said Wednesday. “You’ve got other guys out there that can step up.”
Of course, it will be hard to replace those who went down. General managers don’t typically find All-Pros on the street in early December. Peters, who tore his ACL before the season opener, has been the NFL’s best ball hawk since he was drafted in 2015. Humphrey, who tore his pectoral muscle in Sunday’s loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, has been one of the league’s most versatile, physical and durable cornerbacks. Their combined contracts in Baltimore total nearly $140 million, including over $17 million annually.
On a defense built from the back to the front, it was their ability in press coverage that encouraged coach John Harbaugh and coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s pressure-happy tendencies. The Ravens easily led the NFL in 2019 (54.9%) and 2020 (44.1%) in blitz rate, according to Pro Football Reference, finishing with top-10 pass defenses in Football Outsiders’ efficiency rankings both seasons.
This year, the Ravens’ pressure packages have been scaled back even further, with the defense third in the NFL in blitz rate (35.2%). That has not limited field-flipping pass plays. Quite the opposite, in fact: The Ravens have allowed 13 completions of 40-plus yards in 12 games this season, more than triple what they allowed over all of last year (four) and already worse than their 2019 total (nine). Overall, their pass defense ranks 27th in efficiency and 31st in yards per game allowed (272.4).
The Browns might not be the offense best positioned to punish mistakes by a depleted secondary; quarterback Baker Mayfield has just two 40-plus-yard completions since Week 6. But the Ravens’ reformatted pass defense, which also lost starting safety DeShon Elliott to a season-ending biceps and pectoral muscle injury one month ago, now faces a philosophical question as important as any related to personnel: Will they play the same style without any of the same stars?
“We talk about all the time that pressure breaks pipes, and offenses play us different than what they play others because of the style of defense that we play, that our guys enjoy playing,” Martindale said Thursday. “But when it doesn’t work, that’s the first thing that people ask. And I understand that you get paid for a reason, and I also understand that’s why we have the greatest sport in professional sports in our country. …
“There have been plenty of times we’ve won with zero pressure as well. So we’re going to be who we are, and will we do things different? I think we do things different all the time. Are we going to play a different game plan than what we played against Cleveland the first time? There are always punches and counterpunches in a game, and that’s what you’ll see Sunday, and that’s what Pittsburgh will see the next time we play them and everything else.”
Mayfield on Wednesday called Humphrey a versatile “playmaker” and an “extremely key component” of the Ravens’ defense, which blitzed him a season-high 16 times on his 40 drop-backs in their Week 12 meeting, according to PFR. But Mayfield pushed back at the suggestion that Humphrey’s absence would alter Martindale’s approach to Sunday’s game.
“I would not go there,” he said. “They are good at their defense. No matter who is in there, Wink is going to call it, call those plays and call those pressures and expect his guys to execute it.”
It is a motley crew at cornerback. Averett is the NFL’s most targeted cornerback, according to Sports Info Solutions, having faced 79 passes in 11 games. The 2018 fourth-round pick has blanketed receivers in some games and struggled with breakdowns in others; he blamed himself Wednesday for a communication failure that led to Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson’s 29-yard touchdown catch Sunday.
The 6-foot-4 Westry, one of the NFL’s tallest cornerbacks, made his first career start in a Week 11 win over the Bears. He gave up a late-game, go-ahead score to Chicago wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, then missed the next two games with a thigh injury. After practicing fully Wednesday and Thursday, he’s expected to return to action Sunday. “When he’s healthy and he can practice,” Martindale said Thursday, “he’s a good corner.”
Young was “sick as a dog at Pittsburgh,” Martindale said, which limited him to a season-low eight snaps. But when healthy, he has been maybe the Ravens’ most reliable defensive back, his ability barely diminished by a season-ending neck injury in 2019 or a season-ending knee injury in 2020. In coverage, Young has allowed just 191 yards and a 64.1 passer rating this season, according to PFR. He also has two sacks on just 19 blitzes.
Smith, 33, has battled ankle, hip and neck pain this season. He played a combined 41 defensive snaps from Week 6 to Week 10, then earned 42 in Pittsburgh, his first game back in nearly a month. Smith was one of the NFL’s highest-rated cornerbacks for the first half of last season until injuries limited him.
If even more injuries force even more depth chart shuffling, the Ravens could move rookie starter Brandon Stephens from safety to cornerback, where he played in college. Special teams contributors Mazzi Wilkins and Kevon Seymour could also be called upon.
They will all need to communicate well, cover well, tackle well. After Sunday’s trip to FirstEnergy Stadium, the Ravens will host the Green Bay Packers in Week 14 and the Los Angeles Rams in Week 16, both of whom have passing attacks that rank among the NFL’s most efficient. In between is a trip to Cincinnati, where a Bengals offense that in Week 7 carved the Ravens up for 416 passing yards awaits.
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It is not hard for Averett to notice where this secondary started this season and where it now finds itself. “It’s, like, nobody left from the beginning stages,” he said. But if opposing offenses aren’t going to care, why should he? He expects quarterbacks to keep attacking, just as the Ravens’ defense expects to do the same, fighting pressure with pressure.
“We’re all going to be prepared for it,” he said. “We know what’s coming, so we definitely will prepare for it.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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Line: Browns by 2 ½