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Experienced Ravens Defense Looking To Dominate In 2017

September 15, 2017
From his vantage point at the back end of the Ravens' defense, safety Eric Weddle can easily see how the Ravens have invested in the secondary this year. 

Alongside him is safety Tony Jefferson, the five-year veteran who was signed to a four-year, $36 million deal just as free agency began. Starting at cornerback is former first-round pick Jimmy Smith and veteran Brandon Carr, who signed a four-year, $24 million deal (although three of those are option years). 

And the top reserve cornerback is rookie Marlon Humphrey, the Ravens' first pick in this year's draft. 

"We have gone after a portion of our team, the back end, the secondary, with a vengeance," head coach John Harbaugh said the night Humphrey was drafted. "I think we have done a great job as an organization in terms of getting that done."

Indeed, that is a lot of capital and investment tied up in the secondary, but Weddle and others said they welcome the pressure and expectation that come with that.

"We feel ... we can be one of the best units in this league," Weddle said after a training camp practice. "And we have to be. We feel if we play great week in and week out, we'll have a great chance to win. If not, if we have a slip-up, then we'll probably lose. That's our mindset, and we love the pressure. ... We want all that. We want to be on the field to win the games."

Smith said Weddle is "absolutely right. ... I'm a cornerback, so I'm on an island. I line up, and there's nothing but pressure at all times." But, he added, "If we do well in the back end, we're going to win a lot of games."

The prevailing wisdom is that the Ravens will go as far as their defense and kicker Justin Tucker's leg can take them this season. 

The offense entered the season awash in questions, as quarterback Joe Flacco missed the entire preseason with a back injury, and receiver Breshad Perriman (hamstring), running back Danny Woodhead (hamstring) and starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley (undisclosed) missed extended time as well. 

The defense, meanwhile, not only invested heavily in the secondary, but the team also re-signed defensive tackle Brandon Williams to a whopping five-year, 

$54 million deal and selected defensive players with their first four picks of the draft.

"Our offense is going to carry us at times, I'm sure," Smith said, "but obviously ... we rely on our defense because we know that we have a strong defense, and we put a lot of money into it, even in the draft this year. So that unit especially has to step up.

"We're trying to get back to the roots of what the Ravens have been over the years, and it's been the defense."

Smith has played just one full season during the past three years, missing eight games in 2014 with a foot injury and then missing five games last season with back and ankle injuries. He entered 2017 as healthy as he has in several years, participating throughout the spring OTAs and minicamps. 

Smith's absence last year was glaring, and it exposed the Ravens' need for additional depth in the secondary.

Against the New York Giants in Week 6, Smith held receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to one catch for 6 yards in the first half, but after Smith left with a concussion, Beckham torched the Ravens for 216 yards and a pair of second-half touchdowns during a 27-23 Giants win. 

Smith missed the Christmas Day game at Pittsburgh, when receiver Antonio Brown lunged across the goal line with nine seconds remaining for a 31-27 Steelers win that knocked the Ravens out of playoff contention. The Steelers scored three times in the fourth quarter during that game, driving 75 yards in 10 plays during the final 90 seconds for the game-winning score. 

Clearly, that loss still stung months later, and it might have gone a long way toward shaping the Ravens' offseason priorities.

"I don't think anybody would have expected Pittsburgh to put up 21 points on us in the fourth quarter after that defense held them to 10 for three quarters," owner Steve Bisciotti said at the team's season-ending news conference, noting the Ravens' defense had been ranked No. 1 for much of the season before it "collapsed" during the final month of the season. 

"We have two teams at least [in the AFC North] -- Cincinnati and Pittsburgh -- that put great receivers on the field against you, and you have to match that talent, talent for talent," Harbaugh said after the team used their first-round pick on Humphrey. "... You have to match strength for strength, and I think we have done that with this pick, and it gives us a chance to get out there in the fourth quarter, in two-minute, and do the things we need to do to finish games."

Carr is viewed as an upgrade over Shareece Wright, who was let go one year into a three-year deal, and Jefferson is seen as an upgrade over veteran Lardarius Webb, who was expected to move into a reserve role. Carr is also durable -- he entered the season with a streak of 144 consecutive starts, the longest active streak in the NFL among defensive players.

The importance of depth has already been made clear as the Ravens' secondary suffered a pair of serious injuries during the summer. Promising slot corner Tavon Young was lost for the season with a torn ACL, and second-year defensive back Maurice Canady also suffered a knee injury. Canady was on the original 53-man roster before being moved to injured reserve, making him eligible to return later in the season.

In light of those injuries, Webb took over as the starting slot corner, and the Ravens have versatile Anthony Levine subbing in as well. 

With that starting group plus Webb and Levine, the Ravens boast 42 years of experience in the secondary, with a first-round rookie waiting on the sideline. 

"When you have a group like we have, on paper, it's expected that you go out there and dominate," Jefferson said. "That's what we want, that's what we strive for each day, even at practice, even in meetings. Let's be professional, and let's be the best at what we do." 

Follow Bo on Twitter @bsmolka      

Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox

Issue 237: September 2017