Eisenberg: The Irony of Ravens Cornerbacks Finally Being a Healthy Strength

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As an organization, the Ravens were tired of playing shorthanded at cornerback after they failed to make the playoffs in 2016.

Issues with the corners had cost them dearly for several years.

In a 2014 playoff game, they were two touchdowns ahead of New England with 25 minutes to play, a trip to the AFC title game within reach. But injuries had decimated their cornerback corps and Tom Brady took full advantage, taking to the air on touchdown drives that enabled the Patriots to come back and win.

A similar scene unfolded last year. The Ravens could have taken command of the AFC North race by winning in Pittsburgh on Christmas, and they had several leads in the fourth quarter. But Jimmy Smith was out for the season and the secondary couldn't stop Ben Roethlisberger and his playmakers as they rallied to win.

It's not fair to pin the Ravens' shortfall since the Super Bowl on one position, but you can make the case that good things might have happened to change that narrative if only the Ravens had been deeper at the corners.

The organization's frustration with the situation boiled over during the past offseason. The Ravens dipped into the free-agent market and signed Brandon Carr, a durable starting cornerback. They used their top draft pick on another corner, Marlon Humphrey.

Then more good things happened. Maurice Canady, a 2016 draft pick, showed marked improvement in spring and summer practices before suffering a knee injury, from which he might return soon. Jaylen Hill, an undrafted rookie, played his way onto the 53-man roster and impressed in his debut Sunday in Minnesota.

After being shorthanded at the corners for so long, the Ravens suddenly are deeper there than at any position. And that's without Tavon Young, the likely starting slot corner, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the spring.

The change is palpable, the difference tangible. The Ravens yielded an average of 248.7 passing yards per game in 2014 and 232.8 last year, but they're only giving up 189 yards per game in 2017.

Resolving their biggest issue hasn't provided the cure-all relief the Ravens imagined, though, because they've sprung leaks elsewhere.

Their run defense is ranked last in the league after taking another pounding Sunday in Minnesota. One reason for the pass defense's improved numbers, no doubt, is opponents are running the ball so effectively against the Ravens that they aren't even bothering to pass.

"Oh man, it's a yucky taste in our mouth right now," Carr said Monday about the run defense. "All hands are on deck right now. All 11 guys, back end and the front seven; of course, we're going to iron this thing out."

And on the other side of the ball, the Ravens are dealing with multiple issues, as evidenced by their No. 31 ranking in total offense.

It's almost enough to make you long for the days when a cornerback shortage was the biggest thing to worry about.

But if there's any reason to hope for the Ravens to turn things around after losing four of their past five games, it's the play of the cornerbacks.

Given the level they're attaining, if the run defense tightens up to any degree, the overall defense could become pretty formidable, providing sorely needed ballast.

According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Smith has been targeted just 20 times in seven games, an indication of the respect he commands. He has allowed 11 catches for 99 yards, yes, over the entire season.

Carr has been targeted 28 times and allowed 192 receiving yards. In Sunday's defeat, he earned the highest individual PFF grade of any Baltimore player.

"This is the type of impact the Ravens were hoping for when they signed Carr," PFF wrote.

Of the 79 outside cornerbacks around the league who have played enough to receive a PFF ranking, Smith is No. 9 and Carr is No. 11.

Yes, it helps that the Ravens have played more quarterbacks like Mitchell Trubisky and Case Keenum than Roethlisberger. But regardless, it's clear the cornerback play is vastly improved.

Now it's up to the rest of the defense, actually the entire team, to make that improvement at cornerback as significant as the Ravens envisioned.

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