The Ravens tried hard not to make excuses, but they also knew it was painfully obvious. As Dallas Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott dissected their defense and found mismatches around the field, the Ravens were badly missing their top cornerback, Jimmy Smith.
Smith was inactive because of a back injury, and Prescott took full advantage, completing 27-of-36 passes for 301 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in the Cowboys' 27-17 victory over the Ravens Sunday at AT&T Stadium. The Cowboys' top receiver, Dez Bryant, who likely would have been shadowed by Smith, had little trouble with smaller and less physical cornerbacks Shareece Wright and Tavon Young. Bryant caught six passes for 80 yards and two scores.
"We got guys who are capable and we got to put our best players on the field. Down the stretch, we definitely need our warriors," Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We need dogs. Not only in the secondary, but everywhere. If we're going to fight for our playoff lives, you want your biggest horses running the Kentucky Derby."
Suggs said he believed Smith was going to play, but the veteran cornerback never recovered well enough after missing practice Wednesday and Thursday and working on a limited basis Friday. It was the first full game Smith missed this season, although he was forced out late in the second quarter of the Oct. 16 loss to the New York Giants because of concussion symptoms.
Like the Giants' Odell Beckham Jr. did to the Ravens' pass defense in Smith's absence, Bryant victimized a secondary that struggled to deal with his size and physicality. He got inside position and then out-muscled Wright on his 4-yard touchdown catch that gave the Cowboys a 17-10 lead midway through the third quarter.
He then beat Young on a slant early in the fourth quarter and basically carried the rookie in the end zone for a 13-yard score.
"Obviously it's big and it hurts us," safety Eric Weddle said of Smith's injury. "Throughout the week, we got a sense that he wasn't going to be able to play. It wasn't a shock to us that he wasn't there. He brings a matchup for us that we can put a guy like Dez and feel confident about that matchup or whoever we're facing. It's tough to roll coverage to a guy like Dez but then you're worried about the run game and you're trying to stop that. You're trying to stop [Cole] Beasley on third down and leaving [Bryant]. It presents a tough challenge as a defense when you don't have your best corner out there."
The Ravens prefer not using Smith to shadow one receiver. However, they've done it in the past against big and physical receivers, and Smith has responded by limiting players such as Brandon Marshall of the New York Jets and Terrelle Pryor Sr. of the Cleveland Browns.
Bryant is 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, so he would have been the ideal candidate for a shadow job by Smith who is 6-2, 210 pounds. But with Smith unable to go, the Ravens had to rely on the trio of Wright (5-11, 184), Young (5-9, 177) and Jerraud Powers (5-10, 193).
Bryant's a "good receiver," said Wright who had missed four of the Ravens' previous five games because of back and hamstring injuries. "They're a good team. They're going to make their plays. We got to make ours."
Prescott never really came close to getting intercepted, completing 14 of his 15 passing attempts in the second half. With the Ravens trying to take away big plays and honing in on the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott-led running game, and with the pass rush being nonexistent for the final 2 ½ quarters, Prescott used the short passing game to move the ball down the field at will.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh indicated that the defensive game plan wouldn't have changed if Smith was active, and the team would have still played single coverage. Always adhering to the "next man up philosophy," Harbaugh didn't lament Smith's absence.
However, it went without saying that the Ravens would have felt a lot better about containing Bryant if Smith was on the field.
"It probably wasn't the best decision if you look at it right now, but you've also got to stop the run," Harbaugh said when asked about playing single coverage on Bryant. "That's the issue that they present to you as an offense. We played a lot of split-safety coverage, too. We were in two-deep coverage a lot, especially on first and second down. More of the single coverage came sometimes on third down, third-and-medium, third-and-short, and they can still run the ball."