Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey on facing Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes on Monday Night Football.
The severity of the injury that nickel cornerback Tavon Young suffered last Sunday in the Ravens' 33-16 win over the Houston Texans — a torn ACL in his left knee that will sideline him for the remainder of the season — was a blow to a defense stocked with talent.
Buried underneath the headlines of stars who also suffered season-ending injuries, such as New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley and San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa, the loss of Young might be a footnote ahead of Monday night’s showdown between the AFC’s top contenders featuring two of the league’s young superstars at quarterback.
But as his teammates said, there’s no clear substitution for Young, a multifaceted player who brought value as a cover corner and occasional blitzer.
“Tavon is not really a guy you can really replace,” Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey said Wednesday on a video conference call.
Even as the Ravens (2-0) prepare to host the Kansas City Chiefs (2-0) on “Monday Night Football” without Young, the defense might be best equipped this year to endure the loss.
At his weekly news conference Monday, coach John Harbaugh wouldn’t tip his hand as to who would replace Young in the slot, but precedent from the 2019 season and this past Sunday might be the best predictor for how defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale will adjust going forward.
After Young exited the game just minutes into the first quarter, Humphrey slid inside to Young’s spot, often covering Texans slot receiver Randall Cobb. Third-year corner Anthony Averett, along with veteran Jimmy Smith, received increased snaps, primarily lining up on the outside opposite Marcus Peters.
It’s the same strategy Martindale deployed last season when the team’s depth dwindled after Young was lost in training camp because of a season-ending neck injury and Smith suffered a knee sprain in Week 1 that sidelined him for six games.
When Smith returned from his injury and the team traded for Peters midseason, Humphrey remained in the slot. Humphrey played 45.2% of his snaps in the slot, according to PlayerProfiler, and was voted to his first Pro Bowl.
Against the Texans, Humphrey showed his penchant for playmaking from the slot. Dropping into zone coverage, Humphrey watched Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson, reacted to his pass and punched the ball out from behind wide receiver Keke Coutee. The loose ball was scooped up by linebacker L.J. Fort and returned for a 22-yard touchdown.
Humphrey cited Young and former Raven Lardarius Webb as two nickel corners who he has studied and named Los Angeles Chargers cornerback Chris Harris Jr. as one the most versatile in the NFL.
“You have to be really savvy,” Humphrey said. “My body type is usually not a nickel-corner guy, but I was able to do it all right last year, so we’ll try to get me in there some again. But the biggest thing you see from nickel corners is, you’re going to be around the ball a lot, so any time you can make a play, you have to do it — just because you’re around the ball so much.
"Whether it’s tackling, sometimes in the box, you sometimes come on some blitzes; there are a lot of different things you do inside there.”
As defenses use more personnel groupings with nickel and dime packages — featuring five and six defensive backs, respectively — third and fourth cornerbacks become de facto starters. According to Football Outsiders, in 2019, the Ravens defense used nickel and dime packages on 46% and 41% of snaps, respectively.
The matchup will be magnified Monday, as Kansas City frequently features its top playmakers in the slot. In 2019, 61.2% of speedy receiver Tyreek Hill’s targets came when he lined up in the slot, according to Football Outsiders, and 62.3% of Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce’s targets came when he was in the slot. (The Ravens' Mark Andrews ranked second among tight ends, at 72.4%.)
The loss of Young didn’t hamper the team too much on its way to a franchise-best 14-2 regular season last year. But it marks the first test of a team with Super Bowl aspirations, and the magnitude of Young’s absence will be highlighted Monday night.
“Knowing that we have options in the slot is really valuable,” Harbaugh said. “Of course, we put safeties in there, too, but knowing that Marlon can go in there and play the way he did [Sunday], and then last season, is a big plus. We’ll just try to figure out what we’re going to do next during the course of the week, and we’ll have a plan for Monday night.”
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