A difficult week against one of the NFL's most explosive offenses led to a renewed focus in the Ravens' secondary on putting players in a position to thrive. Coach John Harbaugh said it wasn't a knock on the players, but simply another way the team can look to 2016.
Lardarius Webb seems to be at the center of the shuffle, after two Seattle Seahawks touchdowns while he was lined up at cornerback prompted Harbaugh to say he'll play much more in the slot and at safety the rest of the year.
But a frustrated Webb seemed to make known the feelings of the secondary when asked about making such a late-season shift when the same personnel has been in place all season.
"It's been a long season, man," Webb said. "Long season. You can take that how you want it. It's been a long year."
"That's a good question, but I don't think they meant it in that way," cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "I think they meant it more in a way like we're going to put guys in positions we can make plays in and excel in. I think they always attempt to always do that, but in a season like this, they're just trying to reiterate it."
Despite a run of strong play leading up to the 35-6 loss to Seattle Sunday, the Ravens' secondary came under scrutiny again for its penchant to allow big plays against the Seahawks. Coverage breakdowns or technique issues have led to 12 touchdown receptions of 20-yards or more, tied for second-most in the NFL.
Overall, the Ravens allow 248.3 yards per game, ranked 21st-best in the NFL. With a set group of personnel making it their most experienced and healthiest group in 2015, it's been a difficult year for a unit defensive coordinator Dean Pees said he was "very excited" about entering the season.
Once Shareece Wright arrived in Week 6, they've rolled with largely the same personnel, with Wright as the third cornerback who plays outside in nickel packages, moving Webb to the inside.
The base unit's progress encouraged Pees recently, allowing him to create new packages and schemes for them, but Sunday's game saw one of those packages — involving nearly every defensive back on the team — struggle.
The personnel group designed to keep Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in the pocket on third downs included seven defensive backs, with safety Terrence Brooks spying Wilson and Webb, Smith, Wright, Kyle Arrington, Will Hill and Kendrick Lewis in coverage.
The Seahawks' two first-half touchdowns came against that look, and Wilson threw for five touchdowns overall, finding Webb for two in man coverage on the outside and Wright on a third in the traditional nickel package.
Harbaugh described the touchdowns earlier this week as "coverage errors."
"I really think last game we didn't play some plays particularly well, but I don't think we coached them very well either, and that's me," Pees said. "I think I put some guys in some tough situations worrying about Wilson scrambling, the run game. I guessed on a couple things. I guessed wrong, and we got hit. It's on me as much as it's on all of us, but I'm the one that's in charge, and I have to do a better job of making sure that I put the guys in a position to make the plays and allow them to make those plays."
For Webb, that means more opportunities at safety and nickel, Harbaugh said, though he made it clear it wasn't a knock on him.
"Nobody is saying that 'Webby' can't play corner, and he will continue to play corner," Harbaugh said. "We're not down on anybody. We're not disappointed with anybody."
For the rest of the group, Harbaugh said, "all it means is you're putting guys in position to make plays an get their hands on the ball back there."
"As far as the situation — as far as the way guys play and all — yes, that's disappointing," Harbaugh said. "We're better than that. We're way better than that. We have been better than that. We expected to be better than that."
Smith said it's not a "reset," but the creation of "packages to get those players in the best position."
"We just play the calls that coach puts out there," Lewis said. "This week, if the scheme allows us to make more plays or put us in position to make plays, that's where we're at."
There will also, likely, be new faces in the mix, filling a void left by Webb moving around and the veteran reserve Arrington dealing with a back injury. Brooks might get a bigger role on defense. Harbaugh pointed to rookie fourth-round pick Tray Walker as someone who might take Webb's spot on the outside, a player whom he said is "very green, very raw," but is learning fast.
"Having this opportunity, it's a blessing and I'm just waiting on my chance," said Walker, who has played just eight defensive snaps this season and played in six games, mostly on special teams. "I just want to be great, make the plays that I need to make, help my team out, learn from my mistakes and just get better overall as a player."
Cornerback Jumal Rolle was promoted from the practice squad as well, and though he anticipates a special teams role Sunday, he said he's capable of playing as a slot defensive back or on the outside if called upon.
The veterans in the secondary hope that having these young players at the coaches' disposal can only help the group, both this year and going forward.
"They're going to be two good, young corners coming up that we have," Webb said. "I'm excited to see them."