The Ravens' 2016 playoff hopes ended on a series of plays dispiritingly familiar to those who've followed the team in recent seasons.
It was Christmas Day, and they held a three-point lead with 1:18 showing on the clock. That was the good news. The bad news? Across the line of scrimmage stood Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his armada of gifted receivers. The Ravens would have to defend them with a secondary that was, again, defined by ill-timed injuries and underwhelming performances.
The next minute offered a feast for fatalists — Roethlisberger to Jesse James for 16 yards, Roethlisberger to Eli Rogers for 20, Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown for the deciding six points. Eight straight completions, interrupted only by two spikes, and the Ravens were helpless to resist as their season hung in the balance.
It's more than eight months later now, and, as the 2017 edition of the Baltimore defensive backfield attempts to gather for a post-practice portrait, you'd never guess such disappointment lies in the group's recent past.
Eric Weddle and Lardarius Webb were on the field in Pittsburgh last December. Jimmy Smith looked on in vain, unable to play because of a high ankle sprain. The rest of the faces are new. There's Tony Jefferson, the charismatic up-and-comer signed to be Weddle's running mate at safety. There's Brandon Carr, perhaps the most durable cornerback in the sport. And off in the distance, being goaded to get his tail over here, is the team's fleet and confident No. 1 draft pick, cornerback Marlon Humphrey.
The Ravens invested more heavily in their secondary than any other position group in the offseason, attempting to ensure that the next time they defend their season against a Hall of Fame quarterback, they'll be much better armed. John Harbaugh and his staff believe this year's defense can be one of the best in franchise history, and the reinforced back end is one of the chief reasons. On paper, this is the team's deepest and most talented defensive backfield since at least 2011 and perhaps since the heyday of Ed Reed and Chris McAlister.
Weddle, Smith and Jefferson are all capable of making the Pro Bowl. Carr is the picture of dependability. Humphrey, with his undeniable physical skills and Alabama pedigree, is the future. Webb, who has voluntarily accepted a backup role as a jack-of-all trades, is the graying voice of Ravens wisdom. Add in versatile special teams star Anthony Levine Sr. and surprise training camp standout Jaylen Hill and the group has an answer for every situation, even without the injured Tavon Young or Maurice Canady.
"Even with the two injuries, you see that depth playing out, because those are the guys who are playing and they are playing well. It kind of speaks for itself," Harbaugh says.
"I can't take nothing away from some of those guys who taught me everything I know," Webb says, reflecting on Reed and other past mentors. "Those were some great groups. But this right here, everybody has a lot of different talents, and that's what makes it awesome. I do believe that we can do some big things."
Beyond the multifaceted skills, another fact becomes obvious in a hurry: These guys adore one another.
Whether it's Smith mugging for the camera with faux strongman poses or Carr cutting up the group with a well-timed barb or the whole crew teasing the outspoken Weddle as "Mr. Captain" or "Sgt. Weddle," they feel like a pack of high school buddies.
They eat together. They hang out at one another's houses. They have their own language, encompassing everything from nicknames to weekly catchphrases. When the regular season comes, they plan to gather once a week for an off-site dinner and film session.
And they root for one another. Asked about the training camp exploits of the undrafted free agent, Hill, Weddle and Smith light up like proud uncles.
"There's no side agendas. There's no insecurities," Weddle says. "We get on everyone, because we all want everyone to be great. There's just an excitement about how good we could be if we all push each other every day."
On a day off midway through training camp, Jefferson looked over to his fiancee and said, "I miss those guys." He'd been apart from his secondary brethren less than 24 hours.
"We go everywhere together. We do everything together," Jefferson says. "It's like brotherhood now. Everyone's connected."
Will that camaraderie matter if this crew has to stop Roethlisberger or Aaron Rodgers on a crucial drive?
Smith, who's lived through his share of highs and lows in seven seasons as a Raven, says yes.
"It absolutely matters," he says. "You want to be friends with that guy who's helping you and protecting you."
That kinship is most obvious between him and Weddle, who generally plays on the same side of the field. They're both California boys. "We eat the same tacos," Smith jokes.
But he's serious about the bond.
"That chemistry, to know he's going to be there when I need him and to know I've got his back when he needs me, it comes from the field sometimes, but it also comes from the locker room and the meeting room and dinner," Smith says. "Just knowing how another person thinks, how he reacts, how he is as a person, all of that goes into having that fluid chemistry back there."
As the team's best one-on-one cover man, Smith is as important as any player not named Joe Flacco. That was obvious whenever the Ravens played without him last season. The problem is he's played all 16 games just twice since the Ravens picked him in the first round in 2011.
Despite his past injury struggles, the 29-year-old Smith is a happy man this summer, in part because of the investments the Ravens have made around him and in part because he went into offseason activities healthy for the first time in years. He's playing carefree.
"I guess for me, I'm more looking at the safeties, because those are the guys protecting everything," Smith says. "To have two safeties, where you know they're going to be in the right spot, they're going to get you in the right check or the right call, that's just a great feeling because you can go out and play more free, more loose."
Weddle has raved about Jefferson from the moment the ace run stopper showed up after signing a four-year, $36 million free-agent deal in the offseason. They achieved near-instant symbiosis. But beyond their relationship on the field, Weddle says, Jefferson's wide-open personality stoked the social chemistry of the entire unit.
"Those guys are great fits for the Ravens," Webb says. "You can see it already. You could see it from the first day of OTAs. T.J. was what we needed. He plays the Ravens way if you've ever seen his film."
That's quite a statement coming from the guy who held Jefferson's starting safety job last season.
For Webb, the longest-tenured Raven in the secondary, this could all be a bitter experience. He took as much criticism as anyone for the unit's struggles in recent seasons, and then the Ravens released him in March. To return, he had to accept a lesser salary and a backup role.
But teammates and coaches agree that Webb has responded with his best training camp in years.
"I'm a backup," he says without a hint of shame. "I want to be here. I like being here. So being in that backup role doesn't affect me at all. I see Tony Jefferson and Weddle, and they're awesome players. I'm like the wild card. To win a Super Bowl, you need some wild cards."
He does everything he can to keep the mood light, and his versatility has already proved important to the team's plans. Though Webb played safety last year, he quickly slid into the nickel corner role when Tavon Young went down with a season-ending knee injury.
"Webby looks like he's 10 years younger," Weddle says. "He wasn't bitter at all. It's impressive."
It's fitting that the 31-year-old Carr, whom the Ravens signed to start at cornerback with Smith, has generated the least hype of the new additions. He's never made the Pro Bowl, but he bangs out 16 starts season after season, a precious commodity for a secondary that's been hampered by so many injuries. His personality, reserved on the surface, also fits that biography.
"The vet," Jefferson says. "He never gets comebacks caught on him. He's smart, cerebral."
Though he's the son of a former NFL standout and the No. 16 overall pick from this year's draft, Humphrey is inevitably the little brother in this family. At the beginning of training camp, he had to prove himself by nailing a rendition of the Motown classic "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" in front of the whole team. He needed three takes. He's also most likely to be stuck with the check when the secondary goes out for a meal.
As Jefferson runs through his scouting reports on each defensive back, he labels Humphrey "TBD."
But truth be told, the rookie has impressed his elders, both with his size and speed and with the self-assurance any cornerback needs to survive in the NFL.
They also like Humphrey because he's well aware he's still an apprentice.
"He's a quiet guy, but if you just pay attention to him, he's doing what he's supposed to do on and off the field," Webb says.
On days when he couldn't practice because of nagging injuries, Humphrey made a point to study what veteran stars such as Smith or Marshal Yanda did when they came into the locker room. He listened intently as Weddle described how he paid the price for taking a poor tackling angle on Ray Rice's famous fourth-and-29 scamper during the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl run.
The rookie has developed his own mental checklist: Stay more balanced, get his hands on receivers to disrupt timing, never give up on deep balls, go for the interception instead of settling for a deflection.
"In college, you think you're good," Humphrey says. "But then you get to the NFL and you see these guys doing things to try to be far beyond good. They're trying to be great — the details they take to practice every day, with everything they do."
1962 Green Bay Packers: It's hard to differentiate among all the great Packers teams, but cornerback Herb Adderley and safety Willie Wood led this defense to an NFL-best mark in points allowed on the way to a league championship.
1962 Detroit Lions: The Packers had the best team, but the Lions started three Hall of Fame defensive backs in Dick LeBeau, Yale Lary and Dick "Night Train" Lane.
1973 Oakland Raiders: The Raiders' defensive backfield was terrific for most of the 1970s, but this edition featured Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown still in All-Pro form and hard-hitting safety Jack Tatum entering his prime.
1976 Pittsburgh Steelers: The back end of the "Steel Curtain" was just as important as the front seven. All four starting defensive backs made the Pro Bowl, led by Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount.
1985 San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers were known for Joe Montana and the West Coast offense, but defensive backs Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, Dwight Hicks and Carlton Williamson all made multiple Pro Bowls.
1995 Dallas Cowboys: This wasn't the most dominant Dallas defense overall, but it featured a star-studded secondary led by Deion Sanders, All-Pro safety Darren Woodson and Super Bowl MVP Larry Brown.
2006 Ravens: It's a pick 'em between this unit and the one on the record-setting 2000 defense. Both featured cornerback Chris McAlister, but when in doubt, take the group with prime Ed Reed.
2013 Seattle Seahawks: A historically great defense, clearly led by a secondary that featured young Pro Bowl selections Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.