The Ravens lost their most important player on Sunday, and it wasn’t Ray Lewis. It was Lardarius Webb.
Webb, their star cornerback, was lost ten plays into the game against the Dallas Cowboys to a torn ACL. It was Webb’s second torn ACL since 2009, and it was a significant blow to a defense that needs as many top cover guys as it can get right now because they have little pass rush. But another reason the loss is significant is because of Webb’s playmaking and versatility.
Webb routinely makes plays by getting his hands on passes or on quarterbacks. Last season, he had 20 deflected pass and he intercepted five more, including three big ones in the playoffs against the Houston Texans and New England Patriots. This season, he had six pass deflections and one interception.
What isn’t noted statistically is how he’s fared as a blitzer from the slot, where he’s applied pressure from the oft-mentioned Fire Zone Blitz concepts on quarterbacks, a blitz that was seen often against Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals during Baltimore’s Week 1 44-13 win. Webb’s versatility is perhaps the biggest reason why this loss is so huge for the Ravens.
There aren’t many cornerbacks in the NFL who are able to line up inside and outside of the formation and have very little drop-off in coverage. That’s because the average cornerback doesn’t have Webb’s quick feet, man-cover skills, and willingness in run support. Because of his ability to play in the slot and on the outside, he is able to match up with receivers of all sizes, short or tall.
As seen in the few snaps he took against the Dallas Cowboys, he can hold his own in coverage regardless of where he aligns and who he is against. On the sixth play of the Cowboys’ first drive, he was aligned in the slot against the 6’2″, 220 pound Miles Austin, and he held his own in man coverage. Austin ran a slant towards the middle of the field — putting Webb in trail position — and he had no issues closing the initial gap between him, forcing quarterback Tony Romo to look to the outside.
In Week 3 from the same alignment, Webb didn’t struggle at all while covering the much smaller and quicker Wes Welker down the field.
On the unfortunate play when he was injured, Webb was in the boundary (short side of field) against the physically strong Dez Bryant.
Webb’s versatility to line up inside and out was vital to the Ravens defense because they could erase a team’s top receiver regardless of where he lined up. Whether the receiver was quick and short like Welker or strong and tall like Bryant, Webb had him covered while the rest of the cornerbacks — namely Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams — worked the outsides against the two’s and three’s.
So what does this mean moving forward?
Well, the loss of Webb affects the Ravens’ sub-packages where they liked to blitz with him as noted. Now that has been taken away the defense has to find someone else with the ability to cover slot receivers — options include Chykie Brown, Asa Jackson, and Corey Graham, none of which are convincing — and that will immediately downgrade the Ravens’ pass defense.
Moreover, this thrusts second-year cornerback Jimmy Smith into the spotlight. Smith is a very talented athlete, but he’s still learning the ropes of the position despite possessing great physical traits, and he can be picked on. He tends to be overly aggressive in coverage, and he has issues with technique, which is a big problem.
Lastly, the loss of Ray Lewis can’t go without mention. He’s the vocal leader of the Ravens, and his vision was key in the play-by-play battle to make the right pre-snap adjustments and combat the audibles of the opposition. There is still a chance he can come back in time for the playoffs, but that’s extremely unlikely. It will be important to watch how the Ravens defend the seam with inside linebacker Jameel McClain, who’s not the most fleet of foot. He will be tested this Sunday against the Houston Texans’ play-action passing game and tight end Owen Daniels.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will have his hands full, to say the least.