OWINGS MILLS — Surrounded by reporters in front of his locker stall Wednesday, Lardarius Webb flashed a knowing, confident smile.
The Baltimore Ravens’ rookie cornerback acted like it was just another typical day of practice instead of the first day of preparations for Sunday night’s high-profile AFC North showdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As Webb prepares for an expanded role, possibly a starting job with Fabian Washington done for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, he has no plans of cracking under the pressure of defending the Steelers’ pair of former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player wide receivers in Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes.
“No pressure,” he said. “These guys have prepared me for the pressure. They told me this day was going to come, so each week I just prepare. The time has come.
“This week is going to tell who’s going to be out there and help this team win this game. No nervousness. I love this game, I love to play football. I’m just going to go out and have fun.”
Although his task is a daunting one against Pittsburgh, Webb’s confidence isn’t unjustified. The athletic third-round draft pick has registered 14 tackles, one sack and one pass deflection while playing in every game this season. He also returned a kickoff for a touchdown against the Denver Broncos in his role as the Ravens’ primary kickoff returner.
Aggressive and fast with 4.35 speed in the 40-yard dash, the former Division I-AA All-American is drawing high marks from the coaching staff.
“He’s got cornerback skills, but I like some other things,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “I like some intangible things about him. He’s a competitive guy. He’s got a lot to learn.
“He’s obviously a student of the game. I think he’s more advanced than most rookie corners, most rookie players. He’s very professional for this stage of his career. He’s a bright guy. Then, you see the physical stuff obviously.”
The Ravens, who haven’t officially named Webb as the starter and list Chris Carr atop the depth chart and also have Frank Walker in the mix for playing time, have been slowly grooming the Alabama native for this day.
“Each week, I learn from the guys in front of me and they prepare me for these weeks, these days,” Webb said. “I haven’t been reported as the starter. We have more corners and we have to compete this week. We’re going to see who comes out on top.
“I’m going to come out and learn from Ed Reed and even Fabian Washington being down can help me on the small things about how to study film and how to play these boys. They played them three times last year and we lost all three, so there are some things they can teach me. I’m here with open ears.”
Webb has the most natural backpedal on the team and suddenly changes direction when he breaks on the football.
As a converted safety, he’s also a willing, physical tackler.
“I like to be around the ball,” he said. “I think I can be around the ball and make some plays, just add a little excitement to the team..
“The physical part, I think I have that. It’s just knowing what they’re going to do before they do it. The things I have to improve on is learning the game.”
Webb is also humble and willing to listen. He’s quick to ask his veteran teammates questions if he doesn’t understand something.
“He’s playing great,” said Walker, who started against Pittsburgh in last year’s AFC title game. “I make sure he knows everything I know. He wants to know what’s going on.”
Webb provides a blitzing presence, decking Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn for his first NFL sack two games ago.
The Steelers have noticed, too.
Despite Webb being only 5-foot-10, 179 pounds, he doesn’t back down from a confrontation with bigger players.
“I think he’s a very physical player,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. “A few of the things that I’ve seen from him, he’s a violent blitz man. In some of the sub package stuff when he comes off the edge, he’s really been a force in that regard.
“He forces the run very well. He appears to be a very aware player. He looks like one of their kind of guys.”
That’s a huge compliment, considering the source and the Ravens’ defensive tradition.
Nonetheless, though, Webb is fully expecting to be the subject of targeted selection from Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Why not test out the rookie cornerback?
“That’s in all cases, no matter what team you are on and what rookie you are,” Webb said. “All rookies are going to be targeted. They’re going to come at him. They’re going to try to use you. That’s where all the hard work pays off.”
Webb will need more than his work ethic Sunday night. He’ll need to match footwork, acceleration, skills and knowledge with a trio of dangerous receivers in Ward, Holmes and Mike Wallace.
Ward has caught 63 passes for 798 yards and five touchdowns. He’s also one of the toughest downfield blockers in recent NFL history.
Holmes, who caught the game-winning touchdown in the Steelers’ Super Bowl win over the Arizona Cardinals, has outstanding speed and has caught 50 passes for 764 yards and one score.
And Wallace is averaging 17.9 yards on his 28 catches for 500 yards and three touchdowns.
Tomlin said he won’t commit the mistake of going after Webb in an obvious manner because of Reed’s ability to diagnose an offense’s intentions and exploit that.
“We’re going to play ball the way we play football,” Tomlin said. “I’m sure a lot of what we do is dictated by the presence and the location of Ed Reed.
“I know if that guy is playing corner, Ed Reed is going to be aware of that and we’re not interested in throwing him any balls. Somehow, he usually comes back with a couple.”
Plus, Webb’s game will be on display for the entire nation.
“It’s not about me, man,” he said. “I’m just out there filling a void for Fabian Washington.”
When he lines up across from Ward, Webb can expect some roughhouse tactics, some taunting words and that trademark grin.
“I don’t know what to expect, never been against these guys,” Webb said. “Great team, great quarterback, great wide receivers
“I heard it’s a very physical game. I don’t know what to expect. I just know it’s a very important game for the ball club.”
Webb had a rough path to the NFL, transferring to Nicholls State after being dismissed from Southern Miss for violating team rules.
During his teenage years, his mother was addicted to crack cocaine and his father struggled with alcohol. His older brother is in prison for armed robbery.
Webb doesn’t lack for motivational fuel.
“He loves football,” Harbaugh said. “We try to draft guys that like football and are hungry and want to be a part of what we’re doing. I think he fits that mode.”