For the second year in a row, the Baltimore Ravens will be without standout cornerback Jimmy Smith in a late-season game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
This time, the Ravens are far better prepared to meet the challenge.
With the AFC North title up from grabs last Christmas, an ankle injury to Smith forced Baltimore to start Shareece Wright and Jerraud Powers at cornerback. The result: Ben Roethlisberger threw for 279 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-27 victory.
The Ravens skidded to an 8-8 finish and missed the playoffs. As the team entered the offseason, coach John Harbaugh said adding depth in the defensive backfield was the No. 1 priority.
General manager Ozzie Newsome listened, and that is why the Ravens (7-5) are prepared to move forward without Smith, who tore his left Achilles tendon last Sunday in a 44-20 win over Detroit.
“Jimmy was playing at pretty much a first-team, All-Pro level so it’s going to be tough to replace him,” Ravens receiver Mike Wallace said Wednesday. “But if there’s anybody equipped for it, I think it’s us, with the players that we have and the depth we have.”
During the offseason, Newsome drafted cornerback Marlon Humphrey with the 16st overall pick and signed free agent defensive backs Brandon Carr and Tony Jefferson.
All three will play significant roles Sunday in Pittsburgh. Carr and Humphrey will be the starting cornerbacks, Jefferson will line up at strong safety and Weddle — the only returnee from last year’s starting backfield — will be the free safety.
“We are much better able to handle the injury to Jimmy,” Harbaugh said. “Our secondary is playing at a really high level.”
Baltimore leads the NFL with 20 interceptions, including three by Smith. Even if he didn’t sustain a season-ending injury, the Ravens would have been forced to play the final four games without Smith because on Monday he received a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
“Unfortunately, Jimmy — a good guy and a playmaker — went down,” Carr said. “But we’ve got a lot of incredible guys back there champing at the bit and waiting to make plays as well.”
Humphrey stands at the top of that list. After Smith went down in the second quarter last weekend, the rookie out of Alabama had seven tackles and an interception. In 12 games this season, including one start, Humphrey has 25 tackles, two interceptions and has knocked away eight passes.
“He has composure on the field. He has God-given speed,” Carr said of Humphrey. “The ability he has can make up for a lot of things he hasn’t learned yet, as far as technique and the ins and outs of receivers. But he has a knack for just going out there and making plays. He has fun. His energy is incredible on the field.”
Humphrey is going to need all the energy he can muster if matched up against Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, who scored the game-winning TD in that Christmas game.
“He’s crafty,” Carr said of Brown. “There are times he cuts his routes off and Ben knows exactly where he’s going to be. You have to play him from whistle to whistle.”
Humphrey could get beat at least once, maybe more. He understands this.
“That’s one of the hardest things to do at cornerback,” he said. “When you let up a big play you have to let that go and move on to the next one.”
And when one player gets injured, a team must move on to the next. Thus, the Ravens are ready to move forward without Smith.
“Our secondary is the strength of our team, so we’re not going to sit back and be sorry for ourselves,” Weddle said. “We’ll step up and play well in his absence.”