Ravens showing sharper corners this season

Young players Jimmy Smith, Cary Williams give team more physicality in secondary

August 21, 2011|By Ken Murray, The Baltimore Sun

The biggest answer that came out of Friday's preseason game for the Ravens is that they are better this season at cornerback — perhaps much better.

Jimmy Smith, the first-round pick who came with a caution flag, held his own against the Kansas City Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe in his M&T Bank Stadium debut at left corner. Cary Williams, a third-year player out of Washburn University, might have taken the lead for the starting job on the right side with another strong outing.

Smith is 6 feet 2, smooth and already plays with the nerve of a veteran. Williams is a slender 6-1, all arms and legs, and he plays with a giant chip on his shoulder.

By contrast, last season's starters, Chris Carr and Josh Wilson, were 5-10 and 5-9. Maybe not coincidentally, the Ravens ranked 21st in NFL pass defense, giving up 224.9 yards per game and a total of 22 touchdown passes.

The bigger, more physical secondary is also better in another area: depth. That luxury allows veteran corner Domonique Foxworth, who missed the 2010 season with knee surgery, to return at his own pace.

Foxworth played sparingly in the 31-13 win over Kansas City and is still trying to regain the quick burst he had before the injury. His recovery is not without complications.

"It's been stressful," he said after Sunday's practice. "But the encouraging thing is seeing how good the rest of the corners on the team are. I think last year, one of the most difficult things for me to deal with was leaving a bit of a hole on the team that you feel responsible for. But this year, we are really deep and really talented. So no matter what happens with any one or two guys, we have more guys who can step in and do just as good a job."

That depth includes Carr, who returns after flirting with free agency, and nickel back Lardarius Webb, a former starter. Even Danny Gorrer, a second-year free agent, has had his moments this summer. And the addition of Bernard Pollard (free agency) at strong safety looks like another upgrade in the secondary.

The Ravens' secondary gave ground grudgingly against the Chiefs on Friday. Matt Cassel completed just six of 14 throws for 73 yards, and overall, three Kansas City quarterbacks hit just 20 of 39 passes.

The Bowe-Smith matchup was riveting in the first half. On Cassel's first pass, Smith, body-to-body, tipped a third-down pass that Bowe, also 6-2, still caught for 14 yards and a first down.

Bowe was targeted twice more against the Ravens rookie. One pass fell incomplete, and the last time, Bowe turned a quick fade into a 26-yard pickup when Smith pressed him. Smith said he should have played off but felt confident enough to press.

"I'm a rookie," Smith said. "I'm definitely going to make rookie mistakes. I don't think my game is where I want it to be, [or] where a shutdown corner should be. I think I had good coverage; he just came out with some good catches."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh thought it was a good experience to prepare Smith for what's ahead.

"I'd say it was kind of mixed — good news and bad news — because now Jimmy has the chance to understand how those completions are really made," Harbaugh said. "Just being close to a guy is not covering a guy in this league. … I think for him to understand how fast the back-shoulder fade gets in there on you, it's just an experience for him that he will learn from real quickly."

The Ravens' new look on the corner produced positive results: Smith finished with three tackles, and Williams had three breakups, including one against Bowe. Williams also missed what appeared to be a certain interception when Cassel threw behind intended receiver Jerheme Urban (who deflected the ball), and he gave up a short touchdown pass at the end of the half when he bit on an outside move from the receiver.

Except for the touchdown allowed on an all-out blitz, Harbaugh said, Williams played "very well. He had no other minuses that I am aware of. He had a bunch of broken-up passes on those quick look throws. He did a good job."

After working all week with the first team, Williams made a statement with his physical play. In the NFL, he has had to overcome playing at a small Division II school and a lack of big-time competition. Now, though, he thinks his hard work is paying off.

"I feel like I belong," Williams said. "You have to have confidence in yourself. I felt I belonged last year. You just have to roll with whatever the situation is, whatever the coach feels is best for you, and that's where I'm at right now. I just go with the flow."

Asked whether he thought he deserved to be the starter, Williams demurred.

"Every day, I have to work on something. It's nothing that I'm worthy of yet because I haven't proved myself. I'll continue to get better, and eventually a decision will be made by the coaches. I'm not here to make that decision. … My job is to make it hard for those guys," he said.


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