OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens entered the 2011 season with greater depth at cornerback than at any point in recent memory.
Then, they began dropping like flies.
Jimmy Smith and Chris Carr went down in the regular-season opener, neither one of them currently healthy a month later. Domonique Foxworth was placed on injured reserve after his surgically-repaired knee would not cooperate in getting the former starter back on the field.
As a result, Cary Williams and Lardarius Webb — and the four career starts between them entering 2011 — have held down the starting cornerback positions through the quarter pole of the season. And, surprisingly, the Ravens are tied for eighth in pass defense.
Much credit goes to an improved Baltimore pass rush and a more aggressive approach from new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, but the Ravens can also be thankful for their future Hall of Fame safety and the leadership he’s provided in an otherwise youthful secondary.
A chronic nerve impingement in his neck and shoulder and a hip injury have severely hampered Ed Reed over the last three seasons, but the All-Pro playmaker appears healthier this season after participating in most training camp practices — Reed missed all of training camp and the first six games recovering from hip surgery last season on the physically unable to perform list — and playing a more physical style of football through the season’s first four games.
“Ed’s been really healthy,” coach John Harbaugh said. “He looks great physically. You look at him, he really is in great shape. He’s bulked up a little bit from previous years.”
Reed’s safety blitz on the Ravens’ first defensive play against the Jets two weeks ago led to a sack, fumble, and Jameel McClain’s recovery for a touchdown. It set the tone for 60 minutes of defensive dominance in which Baltimore battered New York quarterback Mark Sanchez and forced four turnovers, leading to a franchise-record three defensive touchdowns in the 34-17 win.
Even without their first-round pick in Smith and Carr’s versatility, the Ravens have received solid play from Williams and Webb, who have benefited from the tutelage of Reed and his 10 years of NFL experience in which he’s made seven Pro Bowls, been named to seven All-Pro teams, and was deemed the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2004.
It’s the kind of résumé that makes it impossible not to listen intently when Reed speaks.
“When he sees something [with the opposing offense], you know because he’s made plays like that before,” Williams said. “With his wisdom, it’s much easier for us to get out there and just make plays and fly around.”
With inexperienced cornerbacks already adjusting to a new defensive coordinator, Reed’s knowledge is invaluable, both during practice and in the heat of battle on Sundays.
“He holds us together back there,” Harbaugh said. “We had a play out here [Friday] where we were in a certain coverage and we had young corners out there with him, and they didn’t really know where to go. Ed changed everything in a split second and made everything work. That’s what a guy like that can do for you.”
For a player like Williams, a seventh-round pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2008 out of Washburn University, the opportunity to work with Reed has enabled him to transition from a fringe member of the 53-man roster to a starter on the league’s third-ranked defense.
“He’s been through everything,” Williams said. “He’s seen a lot of formations. His leadership, just from being a playmaker. He teaches you how to be a pro, both on and off the field. He’s a great leader. He doesn’t get in trouble off the field, and it’s somebody that you want to follow. And, the way he uses his tone, he’s easy to talk to.”
With Reed now 33 years old and approaching the end of his playing days — due to health concerns instead of his overall play — his yearning for a championship is more desperate than ever, knowing this season could be his best last chance to finally lift the Vince Lombardi trophy before calling it a career.
His 17 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, and two interceptions, however, don’t reflect someone so close to retirement.
Reed’s presence has been the glue of a depleted secondary and a major factor why the Ravens have 14 takeaways, second in the AFC.
“It’s just a credit to our guys –- everybody being professional,” Reed said. “The offseason was such a short offseason and buying into what we’re doing around here as an organization. So, that helps, when you’ve got professionals working hard and making plays.”