Despite injury to Asa Jackson, thinned Ravens secondary still effective
By By Jon Meoli
The Baltimore Sun|
Sep 12, 2014 at 1:37 AM
The Ravens' already thin secondary was tested Thursday night when cornerback Asa Jackson suffered a second-quarter concussion and joined inactive cornerback Lardarius Webb on the sideline.
Jackson's departure left the team with two active cornerbacks, but one was 2011 first-round pick Jimmy Smith, who locked down Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown and helped hold Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger without a touchdown for the first time in 30 games.
"It was an unusual matchup, something I've never really done before in my career, even in college or high school, no matter what — just being a bigger guy on such a small, fast guy like [Brown]," Smith said. "It was a unique challenge, and I rose to the occasion."
Smith wasn't alone. A Ravens secondary that was victimized for a game-breaking 77-yard A.J. Green touchdown late in the fourth quarter Sunday didn't yield a passing play longer than 19 yards until they sat back in soft zone coverage on the Steelers' final drive of a 26-6 win Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium.
Roethlisberger picked up 62 of his 217 yards after the Ravens dropped back into loose coverage on that possession. Before that drive, Smith's coverage on Brown limited the Steelers' big-play capability and helped hold Roethlisberger to a paltry 5.18 yards per pass attempt.
Smith worked in primarily man coverage, shadowing the Pro Bowl receiver when he lined up on the outside, and holding Brown to four catches for 39 yards in the first three quarters. The fourth-year cornerback out of Colorado was also one of the Ravens' most stout tacklers, frequently dragging Brown down right after the catch to keep him from breaking a big play.
"I'm a believer in Jimmy Smith," coach John Harbaugh said. "I believe Jimmy Smith is going to make history as a cornerback. I believed that from the day he got here. I've watched him progress. He's one of the most coachable, teachable, hard-working, smart, talented players you're going to find. And you're seeing the fruits of that labor."
Smith said the short week meant the Ravens' scheme — which aimed to keep the Steelers in front of them and prevent big plays, perhaps at the expense of short gains — was unchanged from Sunday.
The personnel, however, was different.
Jackson, who played primarily slot corner against Cincinnati, started on the outside in place of Chykie Brown. Chykie Brown, who was the outside man Sunday, was a substitute in the first half until Jackson suffered a concussion late in the second quarter.
Chykie Brown said the switch was a matchup decision, as they thought the smaller, quicker Jackson was a better fit to cover the Steelers' No. 2 wide receiver, Markus Wheaton.
When Jackson went out, Chykie Brown took his place as the only other active cornerback. With Smith limiting Antonio Brown's catches, both were frequently targeted in coverage of the Wheaton and the Steelers' tight ends.
Chykie Brown, the scapegoat on Green's 77-yard, game-winning touchdown Sunday, was again in coverage on several catches, but never the big play.
Outside of Brown, the Ravens' coverage and looks were more diverse than against Cincinnati, when the team used only five defensive backs the entire game and didn't vary many formations.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees used more defensive backs in the first set of downs Thursday (six) than he did all Sunday (five).
Jackson and Smith lined up at corner with Matt Elam and Darian Stewart at safety on the first play from scrimmage. On the following play, Elam dropped down to the line of scrimmage as the nickel cornerback, with Jackson still on the outside, and reserve safety Jeromy Miles took his place at safety. Chykie Brown entered at cornerback on the third play, which would have ended with a coverage sack had outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw not been flagged for an illegal hit Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Elam, who led the team with 10 tackles Thursday, was again an asset in coverage. He was assigned to cover slot receiver Justin Brown for much of the game, and his only catch was a first-quarter reception he fumbled.
"I played a lot of nickel in college so I've got the feel for it," Elam said. "Webb was down, our main nickel, and they needed me to step up and play that role. I feel like I prepared well. Coach put me in great situations and I feel like I just played hard and did my job and knew where my help was. I was successful."
Elam, the other first-round pick in the Ravens' secondary, was unaware until after the game that the Ravens had ended Roethlisberger's touchdown streak.
"A great player like Ben Roethlisberger, to have him with no touchdowns…that's an honor," Elam said. "We played well."