The Baltimore Ravens put two more defensive backs on injured reserve on Tuesday, with rookie safety Terrence Brooks and cornerback Asa Jackson being shelved for the year with knee injuries, via The Baltimore Sun‘s Aaron Wilson.
The move marks the fifth and sixth Ravens defensive backs to be placed on injured reserve for the year, leaving them as thin as they’ve been this season in the secondary, an area on defense that has been injury-weakened all year long. They join cornerbacks Jimmy Smith, Danny Gorrer, Tramain Jacobs and Aaron Ross on the list.
The Ravens have already been forced to get creative at cornerback, using safeties Anthony Levine and Matt Elam both on the outside and in the slot. The Ravens have more depth at safety, allowing the team to move players around. But in terms of actual cornerbacks, the Ravens are down to recent signing Antoine Cason, Week 15 breakout Rashaan Melvin and veteran Lardarius Webb.
But with two games left to play and the postseason in their sights, another shuffling of the secondary couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
It’s not about the Ravens’ final two games, which make up the easiest schedule of any AFC North hopeful. The Ravens travel to Houston this week to take on the Texans and a fill-in quarterback—either Case Keenum or Thaddeus Lewis—before hosting the Cleveland Browns and rookie Johnny Manziel in Week 17.
It’s the possibility of the postseason that makes the Ravens secondary a liability. Should the Ravens make it, whether as an AFC wild-card team or North champions, they will be tasked to slow down quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Andrew Luck if they are to make it to the Super Bowl.
With this cobbled-together group that becomes increasingly more difficult than if, say, Smith and Ross were joining Webb at the cornerback position or if a safety like Elam wasn’t playing out of position in the slot.
This fact is not lost on the Ravens, who, according to Wilson, worked out four cornerbacks on Tuesday. Quinton Pointer was signed to the practice squad while the team is likely still weighing its options on the other three: Anthony Gaitor, LeQuan Lewis and Brandon Smith, all of whom are journeymen having played with a combined 16 different NFL and CFL teams.
Even with an additional cornerback brought onto the roster, the Ravens still have trouble on their hands. The Texans and Browns should be manageable—Houston was averaging a 25th-ranked 209.1 passing yards per game before having to make this latest quarterback switch, while the Browns had just 54 yards of passing offense in Manziel‘s Week 15 debut.
Still, Baltimore’s passing defense has allowed an average of 259.9 yards per game, 30th in the league, and ranks 19th in yards per pass attempt at 6.9 yards and 11th in yards per completion at 10.5 yards. Even more disconcerting is that the Ravens defense has given up a ninth-ranked 49 pass plays of 20 or more yards. In total, the Ravens have given up 21 passing touchdowns this season.
At least Melvin, a 2013 undrafted free agent added to the Ravens’ roster in November, could provide some positive help for the Ravens at cornerback. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Melvin played 24 snaps in relief of the injured Jackson in Week 15. He was targeted four times and allowed one reception for 12 yards. He allowed no touchdowns, gave up just three yards after the catch and had one pass defensed.
Granted, he had that success against an anemic Jacksonville Jaguars offense, but he showed promise. On his first start, Melvin said to Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com, “I’ve been sitting there for a while watching. I believe in myself. I was happy that the coaches allowed me to have an opportunity to go out there and show what I could do and contribute to the team.”
These next two games will be significant tests of Melvin’s readiness and the playoffs—should the Ravens get there—even more so.
With such a make-it-up-as-you-go secondary, the Ravens will need the front seven to bail out the defensive backs. Luckily, the Ravens have a pass rush that can do this. For all the big plays the Ravens defense has given up in the passing game, it also ranks third in total sacks this season, with 45.
It is led by linebacker Elvis Dumervil with 17.0, 11.0 from Terrell Suggs, 5.5 from Pernell McPhee and even 4.0 from rookie Timmy Jernigan, who has played only 234 defensive snaps this season. By disrupting quarterbacks up front, the cornerbacks and safeties have less passes to defend and less chances to give up big plays to the opposing offenses.
The offense too can do its part to help out the secondary. Through his last five games, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is Pro Football Focus’ top quarterback in the league. He’s completed 68.1 percent of his passes in that span for 715 yards, five touchdowns to just one interception and has been sacked once.
Further, the Ravens have a good run game behind Justin Forsett, who has 1,128 yards on 208 carries. He’s averaging 5.4 yards per carry, has eight rushing touchdowns and is responsible for a team-high 52 first downs—60 if his receiving first downs are added in.
Taken as a team, the Ravens can certainly overcome their issues in the secondary. It’s their only weakness—the pass rush is solid, the run game is as well and Flacco is doing that get-hot-at-the-right-time thing that is the hallmark of playoff-bound quarterbacks.
Now, if the Ravens had trouble creating pressure on quarterbacks in addition to an injury-rattled secondary, then there would be trouble. But, then again, the Ravens wouldn’t likely be at nine wins and worthy of postseason discussion.
So as long as the Ravens stay the course they have traveled this season—and particularly in the last month—the issues in the secondary shouldn’t affect their final two regular-season games.
The playoffs are another animal altogether. But even with their problems at cornerback, the Ravens have enough strengths to potentially carry them through. That is, of course, if the secondary limits the number of big plays leading to touchdowns, which is its biggest area of concern.
At least this has been an ongoing struggle for Baltimore all season long, which is a saving grace. This isn’t a new development, something it’s had to suddenly address and try to overcome. That familiarity could actually prove to be a benefit in an otherwise not-good situation.
What the Ravens must do is what they have been doing—trying to fill in holes in the secondary as best they can while relying more on the pass rush and offense to do the most work toward winning games. Wins have come despite of the woes in the secondary because everything else they are doing is working so well.
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