OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The question has been asked over and over and is again relevant with Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith being suspended for the first four games of the 2018 season.
The circumstances are different since this isn’t a season-ending injury nor a team operating with a small margin for error late in the year, but the doubts remain.
How will the Ravens defense deal without the presence of its top cornerback?
If history is any indication, not well.
In 2014, the Ravens made the playoffs despite Smith missing the second half of the year with a Lisfranc injury, but their season came to an end as Tom Brady picked apart a helpless Rashaan Melvin and New England erased two 14-point leads to prevail in the divisional round. In reality, it was remarkable the Ravens had even gotten that far after cycling through the likes of Asa Jackson, Chykie Brown, Danny Gorrer, and Dominique Franks in the secondary, but they’ll always wonder what could have been had Smith not been injured.
Two years ago, Baltimore entered its Week 14 contest with the Patriots ranked first in total defense, tied for second in scoring defense, seventh in pass defense, and 11th in red-zone defense. A high ankle sprain sidelined Smith early in that game and for the remainder of the season as the Ravens would finish seventh in total defense, ninth in scoring defense, ninth in pass defense, and 18th in red-zone defense. More painful than those numbers, however, was Antonio Brown extending the ball over the goal line in the final seconds in Pittsburgh on Christmas Day, ending the Ravens’ playoff hopes in the process.
After Smith’s season-ending Achilles tendon tear last December, the Ravens slipped from seventh to 12th in total defense, second to sixth in scoring defense, second to 10th in pass defense, and fifth to 11th in red-zone defense. And, of course, Andy Dalton to Tyler Boyd on fourth-and-12 earned a painful place in Baltimore football lore as the Ravens missed the playoffs for the third straight season.
There are too many other variables at work to place all blame on one player’s absence, but there is too large a sample of advanced stats, conventional numbers, and anecdotal evidence that brings you to the same conclusion.
The Ravens defense hasn’t been the same without Smith, but will it be different this time around?
“I don’t think you can just look at it that way with Jimmy because there were other guys that were out during that time,” said first-year defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, specifically referencing the 2017 season. “I think that the toolbox is full. It’s full with our players and our depth, and it’s full with our coverages that we can go to if someone is struggling. I don’t see that in the very near future, but we have those things we can go to with that.”
Martindale makes a fair point as promising nickel cornerback Tavon Young missed all of last season with a torn ACL sustained in the spring. It’s also fair to note after going 2-5 in games in which Smith missed significant action in 2016, the Ravens improved to 4-2 in that department last year with those losses coming in heartbreaking fashion at Pittsburgh in Week 14 and to the Bengals in the season finale.
In Smith’s absence to begin the season, the projected top threesome of Brandon Carr, Marlon Humphrey, and Young definitely looks better on paper than Lardarius Webb, Melvin, and Anthony Levine in 2014 or Young, Shareece Wright, and Jerraud Powers down the stretch two seasons ago.
The defense still wilted last December with Carr and Humphrey at the outside spots and Maurice Canady playing the nickel, but the Ravens will hope the 32-year-old Carr defies Father Time for another season, Young provides an upgrade in the slot, and Humphrey takes another step or two forward after his impressive rookie season. Opponents’ 53.5 passer rating when targeting the 2017 first-round pick ranked second among NFL rookie cornerbacks behind New Orleans’ Marshon Lattimore (45.3), who was voted the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The 6-foot, 197-pound Humphrey looking like a No. 1 cornerback would certainly enhance Baltimore’s chances in September road contests against A.J. Green and Cincinnati in Week 2 and Antonio Brown and Pittsburgh in Week 4. It would also improve the secondary’s long-term outlook as the organization will weigh what to do with Smith and his $15.85 million salary cap number for 2019 after the season. Humphrey’s draft status, size, and ability in press coverage make it no secret the Ravens envision him taking the mantle from Smith sooner or later with the latter’s off-field problems and injury history likely accelerating that transition.
Beyond the top three, the Ravens hope the versatility of Canady — who’s practiced more as an outside corner this summer — and the upside of fourth-round rookie Anthony Averett will provide quality reinforcements if an injury or two occurs before Smith is eligible to return in October. And there’s always the possibility of general manager Ozzie Newsome revisiting interest in free agent Bashaud Breeland or scouring the market for another veteran cornerback.
The spotlight will be on Baltimore’s corners, but survival without Smith is truly a team effort as the front seven will need to create more pressure in the pocket and stop the run effectively to account for any adjustments needing to be made in the back end of the defense. Unlike previous years, the Ravens will have the benefit of more time to regroup if the secondary struggles to find its footing, but dropping a division road game or two — even in September — could leave a difficult path the rest of the way.
“We have a lot of depth. Some guys are just going to have to step up early,” said Martindale, who will put his schematic fingerprints on the matter after replacing former defensive coordinator Dean Pees. “We’re still working on that and how we’re going to do that. I’m not going to sit and say for the rest of the league, and especially for Buffalo and the next three games, on how we’ll do it.
“They’ll just have to see. We have plenty of players that can play.”
Talking about depth is always preferable to having to use it. Only then do you really find out whether it’s quality or overhyped inventory.
It’s an all-too-familiar and uncomfortable position, but the Ravens hope to have the right answer this time.