OWINGS MILLS – His body no longer betrays him, cooperating with every cut, sprint and jump that Lardarius Webb commands.
Now, a combination of muscle and mind working together allows Webb to react as quickly as he diagnoses plays.
Unlike a year ago when his surgically repaired anterior cruciate ligament rendered him vulnerable against fast wide receivers as he returned to play roughly eight months after getting hurt, the Baltimore Ravens’ rugged cornerback has full trust in his knee.
And it’s made a significant difference as Webb has emerged as the unquestioned top cornerback on the Ravens’ defense and one of the better young defensive backs in the league.
“I’m healthy as a player, last year I wasn’t healthy, I admit it,” said Webb, who estimated his capabilities at 80 percent a year ago after injuring his knee on Dec. 20, 2009 against the Chicago Bears. “They kept me out there, there were no excuses. I learned a lot going through those things, getting beat and learning how to forget about it. I fought so hard last year.
“I would see stuff and I wasn’t getting there. I was thinking I was that fast and I wasn’t that fast. My mind thought I was doing it, but legs weren’t doing it like I thought I was doing it. I thought I got a good jump, but it really wasn’t a good jump because it was slow because of my knee.”
In his third NFL season, Webb has become a cornerback that quarterbacks are finding hard to challenge.
According to Pro Football Focus, Webb grades out second among all cornerbacks behind Atlanta Falcons standout Brent Grimes.
He hasn’t surrendered a touchdown, ranks first on the team with four interceptions and has also deflected 14 passes.
Opposing quarterbacks throwing in Webb’s direction have compiled a pedestrian 58.6 passer rating.
“I’m getting better,” Webb said. “A lot of people say, ‘You balling out.’ I don’t see all that. All I see is there’s a lot of room for improvement. There’s a lot of things I need to get better at. They talk about the Pro Bowl and I let that slide right over my head.
“We want to win a Super Bowl around here. I like exactly where I am now. If they want to throw it at me, they can throw it. I’m just going to be prepared every play. I try not to be that missing link.”
Webb definitely wasn’t during the Ravens’ 16-6 victory over the San Francisco 49ers a week ago.
He leapt high into the air in the end zone for an interception, undercutting big wide receiver Braylon Edwards. He also shared a sack on a blitz, recorded four tackles and knocked down two passes.
For the season, Webb already has 56 tackles, one forced fumble and a 73-yard interception return for a touchdown against the New York Jets.
“We all thought he was a good player his rookie year, right? And then he had the knee surgery,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I think he did a great job of rehabbing and getting ahead of schedule on that, but he probably felt some of the effect of that last year.
“I just think he’s a guy that takes the craft of playing corner very seriously, pays attention to detail and really tries to be a technician. When we talk to opposing coaches, they have a lot of respect for the way he plays.”
It’s a vastly different circumstance for Webb than the end of last season.
Webb garnered plenty of blame for surrendering a long pass to wide receiver Antonio Brown late in the fourth quarter during the Ravens’ AFC divisional playoff loss, a reception that led to the game-winning score.
It was widely assumed that Webb would be relegated to nickel back duties this season after the Ravens drafted cornerback Jimmy Smith in the first round and retained Chris Carr with a $14 million contract.
Instead, it’s Webb who has started every game at cornerback while doubling as the primary punt returner.
“I was already motivated from last year’s playoff game, how people reacted, how people looked at my season,” Webb said. “Then, they went and drafted Jimmy. I didn’t have a problem with that. I looked at it like, ‘Well, I’m going to have to work even harder.’
“I just wanted to be a part of the team, whether that was returner, nickel, safety, it didn’t matter. I just wanted to be a part of the defense. I still think I can grow a lot. The games don’t be perfect, they be good, but they don’t be that good. I’m not there yet at all.”
Besides the upgrade in terms of his health, Webb’s awareness and understanding of how to play cornerback have come a long way.
Drafted in the third round three years ago out of Nicholls State (La.), Webb converted to cornerback after primarily playing safety like his idol, Ed Reed, in college.
Now, Webb is responsible for locking down opponents’ top receiver instead of roaming all over the field and making the calls for the entire defense.
“It’s real tough,” Webb said of the transition. “In college, you play safety because you’re smart and you have to know every move. At corner, you don’t have to know all that. What you’ve got to know is how to guard him one-on-one, just being out there on the island.
“I had never been in that situation. It might look like if you can play safety you can play corner, but safeties get ate up out there at corner. Every play, you have to be focused. Now, it’s just being able to feel different things, feel routes.”
Webb ranks one interception ahead of Reed for the team lead.
And he’s tied for third in the AFC for interceptions with four other players, including New York Jets All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis.
Webb is starting to prove he belongs in the conversation about shutdown corners.
“I think part of the reason he was a college safety is because he was their best player,” Harbaugh said. “So, they just put him in the middle of the field and let him run all over the field and make all the tackles.
“He was sideline to sideline. He was fast enough to play corner. We were a little bit concerned about whether he would have the hips and the transition and all that, but he’s proven that he does have all that.”
Although he’s a bit undersized at 5-foot-10, 182 pounds, Webb is one of the toughest tacklers on the third-ranked defense in the league.
“It’s just natural from playing safety,” Webb said. “I used to just roam around and make tackles everywhere. At corner, I don’t have to do it as much.”
Webb strikes whomever’s carrying the football with a lot of aggressiveness, sending larger players flailing backward with perfect form tackles.
“He’s a very physical corner,” outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “A lot of corners aren’t big and it’s tough for them to go against a 235-pound running back, but Webb throws it in there. That’s what they loved about him coming out of college. He was knocking the crap out of everybody.”
Webb said he draws inspiration from his eight-year-old son and namesake, Lardarius Webb, Jr.
“Just me being out there is good enough for him to give him the confidence that, ‘My daddy is in the league,’” Webb said. “He knows it’s not easy. I try to instill in him that he can’t go to college, he can’t play in the NFL if he doesn’t do his work now and stay out of trouble. He thinks he belongs in the NFL.”
His son plays running back and cornerback and wears the same No. 21 jersey number as his father.
“He scores like two touchdowns a game,” Webb said. “He thinks he’s me. He scores so much they have to stop running the ball. In Little League, they don’t let you score a lot of touchdowns. They cut it off.”
As a child growing up in Opelika, Ala., Webb, 26, had to deal with extremely difficult circumstances in his own home.
His mother was once addicted to crack cocaine. His father dealt with alcoholism. And his older brother was imprisoned for armed robbery when Webb was a senior in high school.
Although his brother remains in jail, both his parents have been clean and sober for years and have been together for 29 years of marriage.
“They’re doing real good, they came up for Thanksgiving,” Webb said. “They went through some tough times, but now they’re making it.”