OWINGS MILLS, Md. — There’s no hiding from the danger of Jimmy Smith being absent in the Ravens’ secondary, especially when you’re facing Ben Roethlisberger and a Pittsburgh Steelers passing game that threw for over 500 yards last week.
There’s no easy fix for a pass defense that ranks 22nd in the NFL and has looked vulnerable even with the Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback in the secondary. But the Ravens have no time to feel sorry for themselves as they look to improve to 6-3 in an ultra-competitive AFC North with all four teams sporting winning records.
“I don’t think the Steelers are feeling really bad about it, so we can’t feel really bad about it,” said defensive coordinator Dean Pees about Smith’s foot injury expected to keep him out at least until after the Week 11 bye. “We just have to go with the next guy. [We] have to do what we can do to try to get the guys in the best position we can put them in as a coaching staff to give them success and go with it.”
But who is that next guy opposite Lardarius Webb, who is still working his way back to pre-injury form himself?
Is it Dominique Franks, who recently found his way into the nickel package after being signed to replace the injured Asa Jackson in early October? He was on the free-agent market at this time last month after being deemed not good enough by Baltimore at the end of the preseason.
Then there’s Chykie Brown, who entered training camp as the favorite to be the No. 3 cornerback behind Smith and Webb before struggling so dramatically that he was a healthy inactive the last two weeks. Safety Anthony Levine has also practiced at the cornerback position since the summer, but he’s played only five defensive snaps all season.
The Ravens could promote Tramain Jacobs — a rookie free agent from Texas A&M who impressed during training camp — from the practice squad, but a move such as that would likely see him serving on a special-teams role and as an insurance policy behind the others.
None of the aforementioned options opposite Webb inspire confidence, and that’s assuming Pees uses one of the Ravens’ safeties at the nickel position as he has for large stretches of the season.
“We’ve got to find somebody to step up,” strong safety Matt Elam said. “We know it’s going to be hard to do the things Jimmy’s been doing, but we need somebody to step up and do whatever it takes to help the team win. We’ve still got [time] to prepare and get right so we can execute. Just do whatever it takes to get a [win].”
It’s easier said than done against an offense sporting arguably the best receiver in the NFL in Antonio Brown as well as emerging young wideouts Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. Pees spoke Thursday about the challenge of not being able to put all your focus on slowing Brown with Roethlisberger suddenly having more options to throw to at the wide receiver position.
Needless to say, the pressure to slow Brown is likely to fall on the shoulders of Webb, whose own status many were questioning just a few weeks ago after a back injury wiped out his entire summer as well as much of the first month of the season. The 5-foot-10 Brown isn’t physically imposing, which is good news for the similarly-statured Webb if he’s to shadow him all over the field.
Now would be a great time for Webb to regain the form he enjoyed prior to his second ACL injury in 2012 when he appeared on the verge of being one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. His style is a major contrast to the 6-foot-2 Smith, who uses his combination of speed and physicality.
“Webb is more [of] a quicker guy and a lot smaller, more fluid, [and has good hands],” said Brown, who leads the NFL with 60 receptions on a staggering 87 targets in eight games. “Smith is a bigger, stronger guy who they like to put on the line of scrimmage and be disruptive at the line of scrimmage.”
The good news for the Ravens defense is the overall familiarity the coaching staff and veteran players have with the Pittsburgh offense. There are few surprises between these teams and the Ravens were certainly able to harass Roethlisberger in their Week 2 win in Baltimore when they held the Steelers to only six points.
But the Ravens know the pass rush must be on point again in not only disrupting the signal-caller’s timing but also in keeping him in the pocket as head coach John Harbaugh acknowledged no one is capable of the “extended play thing” better than Roethlisberger. It’s a scene all too familiar in watching the Pittsburgh quarterback escape pressure to eventually find an open receiver breaking away from downfield coverage.
The challenge is always there for a coordinator to strike the right balance between sending extra blitzers — leaving fewer in coverage — or playing with more defenders in the back end and relying on a four-man rush, but Pees will need to be more creative than ever with the shortage at cornerback. How the secondary will look is anyone’s guess as the Ravens may go back to Elam playing the nickel position as they’ve frequently done this season or they could turn to another such as the intriguing Will Hill or rookie Terrence Brooks, who played some nickel in the preseason.
It won’t be easy against the league’s fourth-ranked passing game, but anyone knows not to dwell too much on the numbers in this AFC North rivalry in which 10 of the last 13 regular-season meetings have been decided by three or fewer points.
“We have the guys we need. Every team faces some kind of a situation at some position,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve had injuries all year in different positions, and you just have to step up. It’s not something we talk about. We don’t make a big deal about it. It’s not a point of emphasis for us. It’s just we’re the team; it’s the Ravens’ team. And whoever is part of it goes out there and plays and does their best.”