If the situation sounds familiar, that’s because it is.
The Ravens’ secondary, after another injury-riddled season that tested its depth, is healthy and hopeful for its potential on a defense that ranked among the NFL’s best last year.
For years, coaches and team officials have spoken about the need for a deep group of reliable options over the course of a now-17-game NFL schedule. And the Ravens have shown such talk isn’t just lip service, expending plenty of resources into the back end of its defense.
In the middle of the 2019 season, the team traded for All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters and gave him a three-year extension the following year. Fellow All-Pro corner Marlon Humphrey, who’s shown his ability on the outside and in the slot, received a five-year extension two weeks before Peters. The Ravens also re-signed Jimmy Smith in the offseason to a one-year deal, bringing back a valuable piece of their defense for another year.
As if that wasn’t enough, Ravens brass doubled down in the draft, selecting SMU’s Brandon Stephens and Ohio State’s Shaun Wade; coaches believe Stephens, who played cornerback in college, is best suited at safety in the NFL.
Paired with Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott, two young, steady safeties who played all 16 games in 2020, the Ravens are again confident they have one of the best — and most versatile — secondaries in the league.
After the team’s first practice Wednesday, Humphrey called the group of him, Smith, Peters and Tavon Young, the team’s talented but often-injured nickel back, “a pretty strong four.”
On a day when the quartet was without Peters, sidelined with a toe injury, and Young participated sparingly in team drills, the unit’s talent still shined during Thursday’s practice, the second of training camp.
During 11-on-11 drills, Humphrey broke on a pass to the flat from quarterback Trace McSorley and nearly intercepted the ball. Two plays later, Smith stayed stride-for-stride with receiver Sammy Watkins and recorded a pass breakup along the sideline. Even bubble players such as Chris Westry and Nigel Warrior were solid during the session. On one play, Warrior was able to dislodge a ball from tight end Josh Oliver’s hands over the middle of the field.
Clark said Wednesday that the ending to the team’s season last year — a 17-3 defeat to the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round — “left a bad feeling with all of us.” But it was hard to pin much blame on his unit, and the secondary more specifically, which held one of the league’s top passing units to 206 yards through the air.
Considering how good the secondary was last season — the pass defense ranked 10th in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders — the unit’s key to success could once again come down to a stroke of good fortune on the injury front.
Young’s season-ending injury in 2020, a torn ACL suffered in Week 2, once again forced Humphrey to slide into the slot. The secondary has been able to adjust without Young, who has played just 17 games the past four seasons, but the unit is better with Young, who can cover, blitz and play the run from the slot.
“When we’ve got ‘Tay’ out there, we can do so many different things, and we’ve got so many different elements,” Clark said. “A lot of guys can fill in different spots, and he just brings a different element to us, being out there. So, not having him last year kind of sucked, for real. But having him back out here in training camp — his personality, his character — we love having him back right now.”
Smith has missed 12 games the past two seasons and, despite his age and injury history, always seems to be one of the defense’s most indispensable players. Last season, defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale spoke about using Smith in a hybrid role, lining up as safety in some packages and covering tight ends in others. Once Young went down, that plan evaporated. But with him back in the fold, it once against seems like a legitimate possibility.
Smith said Thursday he was sure Martindale would have such packages for him this season; the Ravens defense lined up in nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six or more defensive backs) packages 78% of the time in 2020.
Aside from the Ravens’ crowded receiving room, the secondary — particularly roster battles for the final reserve spots — might be the most competitive development this summer. Players such as Khalil Dorsey and Davontae Harris had extended playing time last season and are vying for a spot on the 53-man roster. Even a player like fourth-year corner Anthony Averett, who has yet to practice because he hasn’t passed his conditioning test, becomes more expendable given the group’s depth and versatility.
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But for now, the position is a luxury for the Ravens. And they’ve seen how quickly that can change in the fall.