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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It was a year ago earlier this week that Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb suffered the second season-ending knee injury of his five-year career.
In the midst of what appeared to be a Pro Bowl season, Webb was instead sidelined for the remainder of the 2012 season and could only watch the Ravens win the second Super Bowl championship in the history of the franchise. Twelve months later, Webb is back on the field and has already equaled the number of games he played last year prior to the injury, but the fifth-year defensive back is still chasing his high standard of play that was rewarded with a six-year, $50 million contract in 2012.
Through six games, Webb has collected 28 tackles and five pass breakups but has yet to record an interception.
“I’m kind of pleased,” Webb said. “It’s all an uphill battle, but I’ve got to get better. I have to get better each day. I’ve got to get better before Sunday, so I’m just ready to take the challenge.”
Thus far, opponents have challenged Webb more this season than prior to the injury as he’s been thrown at 40 times, according to Pro Football Focus. Of those targets, 25 have been completed for 384 yards, including the 64-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson in Green Bay’s 19-17 win last Sunday. It was the first touchdown pass allowed by Webb since 2010 as opposing quarters have a 102.5 passer rating against him this season.
Last season, Webb was thrown at just 24 times for 11 receptions totaling 111 yards in his six games as teams had received the memo on Webb’s cover prowess after a 2011 breakout campaign that established him as one of the best cornerbacks in the AFC. Given the fact that Webb is coming off the second ACL reconstruction surgery of his five-year career, it’s understandable that the 28-year-old has returned to pre-injury form just yet.
Webb said his eyes were caught in the backfield as he lost Nelson in quarters coverage on the long touchdown pass that gave the Packers a 16-3 lead in the third quarter. Injured players devote so much time to recovering physically that the idiosyncrasies of once again being on the field in live action don’t always return overnight, according to defensive coordinator Dean Pees.
“I think he’s alright, ” Pees said. “He’s just getting back into playing mode, which sometimes takes a little while on stuff. When you’re playing all the time, your eyes are right [and] it’s not so physical [with him]. It’s sometimes more your eyes and just that kind of thing. I think that will be true.
“He’s just got to keep playing, and I think the more he plays and the more he gets back into it, I think the better we’re going to be. I have the utmost confidence in him.”
Webb is also adjusting to playing on the outside exclusively compared to past seasons when the Ravens would slide him to the nickel spot when using three-cornerback sub packages. That move was made after the free-agent departure of Cary Williams and the emergence of Corey Graham in Webb’s absence last season.
The argument can be made that the change has kept Webb out of harm’s way a bit more than in the past, but it’s also limited his ability to be a bigger factor with stopping the run, one of his biggest strengths prior to the knee injury. Playing more on the outside has also presented consistent matchups against bigger wide receivers, which doesn’t make life easy for the 5-foot-10 cornerback as he works his way back to full strength.
Still, Webb is taking the early-season attention from opposing quarterbacks in stride and doesn’t seem to be lacking in confidence through the first six weeks of the season. His next test will come in the form of slowing Steelers wide receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throwing the ball as much as ever this season.
And while Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and his 2,000 rushing yards last season forever changed the expectations on recovery time from an ACL injury, it’s fair to remember Webb is just 12 months removed from surgery and plays a position where lateral movement and rapid changes in direction are critical to success.
“They’re testing me a little bit more,” Webb said. “I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I’m coming off the ACL or maybe they’re seeing me play with a little something. But they are coming, they are coming. Just keep coming. In a while, they’ll learn.
“I’m baiting them to come. I guess they see a couple games where some guys are getting some catches, so continue to come. I’m ready to take the challenge.”