When the Ravens take the field at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, they do so against, in my opinion, the toughest quarterback and offensive scheme for opposing cornerbacks to deal with. That’s not to say that I necessarily think Tom Brady is the best quarterback in the league, rather that all the complexities of the Patriots offense and the weapons available at his disposal make it tough to defend.
That got me thinking back to the point I really started to worry about the Ravens season. It wasn’t when Ray Lewis went down, or during the 1-4 end to the season. Nope, when I first thought the Ravens were in trouble was when star cornerback Lardarius Webb went down with a season ending knee injury. What’s interesting though, is that as the season went on, that fear began to disappear as, slowly but surely, the Ravens cornerbacks started to establish themselves as one of the better units in the league, even without Webb.
Cary Williams can be the most frustrating player on the Ravens defense. At least once a game you feel like he’s going to make a big mistake, either a slip or trip in coverage or just simply losing his man on a double move. And then there’s the fact that so often he plays eight yards off in coverage. How often this season have you seen Williams allow an eight yard completion on a hitch route? Too often for my liking.
And yet, despite all of that, Williams is one of the better corners in the league when it comes to making a play on the ball. Through the regular season and two postseason games, he has picked off five passes and broken up 13 more. Yes, he gives up more big plays than you’d like and that cushion he gives, whether it be by defensive scheme or not, makes it easy for guys like Tom Brady to pick up easy yards. Still, give Williams credit where it’s due: he’s not afraid to make a play on that ball.
Smith, the team’s first round draft pick a year ago, was supposed to slot right into Webb’s spot opposite Williams. But something just didn’t fit. Hurt earlier in the year, Smith eventually was forced to sit out after only his second start in Week 9. Through that point in the season, he had given up a reception of 20 yards or more in half of the team’s eight games and had broken up just one pass. It got me thinking that Smith was perhaps not the corner the team had thought he was, despite such a strong end to last season. So poor was Smith that he fell all the way to fourth on the depth chart, even with Webb out.
To his credit though, Smith has played better since returning from injury. He hasn’t seen too much time on the field, given how well those above him have played that’s not surprising, but the five receptions he has given up since returning have totalled 43 yards. It’s enough of an improvement to make you believe Smith can still develop into the top corner that he psychically looks like he can be.
Here’s where the story takes an unexpected twist. Corey Graham was brought in as a special teamer with the promise that he’d get his shot on defense if he played well. And play well he did. Stepping into the starting lineup in place of Smith in Week 10, Graham has been the team’s most improved performer down the stretch, constantly growing into his role. From Weeks 10 through 14 Graham allowed a reception of 20 yards or more in all but one game. Since then his lone completion allowed of 20 yards or more came against Indianapolis in the Wild Card playoff game.
What’s most impressive about Graham however, has been his ability to step into the slot. Not every corner in the league can do it and that was what concerned me the most when Webb went down. Perhaps the best stat to describe what Webb meant to the Ravens defense is that he was allowing an average of 0.32 Yards Per Snap in Coverage from the slot. Graham allows almost a full yard more than Webb, allowing 1.30 Yards Per Snap but that shouldn’t take away from a stellar performance all around.
When Smith went down, it was last year’s fifth round draft pick, Chykie Brown, who stepped up to take the outside receiver in nickel and dime situations, with Graham moving inside to the slot. Brown has had mixed results on the field, but ultimately hasn’t played too badly apart from a poor outing against the Raiders and the long reception he allowed against the Bengals to end the regular season.
He’s no Lardarius Webb, nor is he as good as Williams or Graham, but in stepping up he has kept Smith on the sidelines despite his return to health. Like Graham, he continues to grow into his role as the team’s third corner but he has certainly flashed some real skills as evidenced best in a three pass defensed performance against the New York Giants in Week 16.
We’d all love to have Webb on the field for Sunday’s AFC Championship game. It goes without saying that he’s the team’s best corner, both on the outside and in the slot. Looking back to the Week 3 Pats/Ravens game, he has already shown that he’s good enough to handle Tom Brady, allowing just three receptions for 24 yards in the Sunday Night Football encounter.
As impressive as that is, let’s give the guys who’ve stepped up in his absence the credit they deserve. Webb’s injury had the potential to derail the Ravens’season but the play of those around him, in particular Corey Graham, has been key to a Ravens defense on the brink of a trip to New Orleans.