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Marlon Humphrey’s punch-out: Ravens cornerback’s game-changing forced fumble result of practice and instincts

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster broke free of the Ravens defense in the first quarter Sunday and hauled in a pass from quarterback Mason Rudolph.

As he curled upfield, cornerback Marlon Humphrey came in pursuit, the only defender left between the Pro Bowl receiver and the end zone.

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Humphrey, doing his best impression of former Chicago Bears cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman, chopped his right arm across Smith-Schuster’s body, attempting to strip the ball. Smith-Schuster delivered a stiff-arm to Humphrey’s face mask and wiggled out of his grasp, on his way to a 35-yard touchdown to cut the Ravens’ lead to 10-7.

Three quarters and roughly eight minutes of overtime later, Humphrey got a chance for redemption. This time, his “Peanut Punch” landed.

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Sticking to what he was taught in practice, Humphrey delivered a game-changing forced fumble in the team’s 26-23 overtime victory over the Steelers.

“[Defensive coordinator Don] ‘Wink’ [Martindale], every week he puts up, ‘Ball punch out, ball punch out,’ " Humphrey said after the game. "He keeps a tally every single week. That’s something we practice and practice every single day and every single period. We keep track of it all the time.

“It’s not really a thing you just do. It’s kind of instincts. You just practice so much that when you get the opportunity, you try to secure the tackle and try to get a ball punch out.”

Humphrey’s strip — and recovery — on the Steelers’ first possession in overtime with 7:37 left set the Ravens up in field-goal range, and kicker Justin Tucker squeaked a 46-yard field goal into the left uprights four plays later to give the Ravens a much-needed road victory.

Humphrey’s highlight was just the play expected from a cornerback who entered the season with Pro Bowl aspirations and who many believed would cement himself among the league’s best. He was voted team Most Valuable Player by local media at the end of last season, although he didn’t accept the award, as he didn’t want to take away from the team’s accomplishments.

“Marlon is a soldier,” outside linebacker Matthew Judon said. “Marlon can do almost anything on the field when’s locked in, and today I feel like he was locked in and he showed it. Kudos to Marlon."

Humphrey’s value to the secondary has magnified, as the unit continues to face attrition that has sidelined three projected starters since training camp opened. Safety Tony Jefferson suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fourth quarter Sunday, joining starting cornerback Jimmy Smith and slot cornerback Tavon Young on the sideline.

It hasn’t been the start to the season Humphrey hoped for, either. He hasn’t played up to his potential and has been the first to say it. The defense has struggled to stop receivers, and Humphrey acknowledged that he was suffering multiple lapses in coverage per game. Sunday was the first time the Ravens held a team under 300 passing yards since their dominant 59-10 season-opening win over the Miami Dolphins.

Before Sunday’s game, the most national attention Humphrey had received was for last Sunday’s dust-up with Cleveland Browns star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., which reportedly drew multiple fines from the league office.

As Humphrey stood at the podium answering questions, he raised a football that he was hiding out of view. He said it was the first game ball he had been awarded in his three-year career, a surprise for a player who has quickly risen to become one of the defense’s — and frankly, the team’s — most important players.

“I think he earned it," an onlooking coach John Harbaugh interjected before embracing the team’s top corner after he came down from the podium.

“It was huge,” Humphrey said of his strip. "I love playing here. I love playing against the Steelers. It’s great. I was on the sideline and I was thinking, ‘Whatever happens right now, somebody is going to make a big play and be remembered forever for the outcome of this game.’

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“I thought it was going to be [quarterback] Lamar [Jackson]. It ended up being [Tucker], I guess maybe me a little bit. I don’t know. It’s very fun in the locker room, I’ll just say that. Beating the Steelers is always a good thing.”

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