Many NFL teams would be envious of the Ravens' cornerback situation, with Jimmy Smith returning from a four-game suspension this week.
At one of the league's most important positions, the Ravens have multiple players performing well. Of the 110 cornerbacks graded by Pro Football Focus in Week 4, the Ravens had three ranked among the top 45 in overall performance – Brandon Carr (ranked 19th, 72.9), Marlon Humphrey (24th, 70.7), and nickel corner Tavon Young (tied for 44th, 65.2).
How Smith fares at practice this week will help determine how much he plays Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. But deciding the best way to utilize Smith among the cornerbacks is not keeping Head Coach John Harbaugh awake at night.
"It's a really good problem to have," Harbaugh said. "I thought Brandon Carr played just tremendously well (in Pittsburgh) as did Marlon Humphrey, as did Tavon. All the corners played exceptionally well."
The Ravens (3-1) remain the only NFL team that has not allowed a second-half touchdown and they have the NFL's second-ranked defense, yielding just 275.8 yards per game. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars (259.2 yards per game) have been stingier.
Strong play in the secondary has been major reason for the Ravens' defensive prowess. Before a national television audience on Sunday Night Football, the Ravens frustrated one of the league's most potent passing attacks led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger threw for just 50 yards in the second half, despite attempting 47 passes in the game. Brown caught just one pass in the second half. JuJu Smith-Schuster's four-game streak of 100-yard games, dating back to last regular season, was snapped.
Roethlisberger was only sacked once and often had time to throw, but his receivers were blanketed.
It was a dramatic departure from previous Ravens-Steelers games, when Brown went wild whenever Smith didn't play. Last December against the Ravens with Smith out of the lineup, Brown dominated with 213 yards receiving. Sunday night, Brown was held to 62 yards on five catches.
Brown made one great play, adjusting his body to make a 26-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter despite tight coverage by Humphrey. But when it mattered most, Brown was corralled.
"There was not a lot of room for Ben to throw," Harbaugh said. "I think that the pressure was there, and he was getting the ball out on time and in rhythm, but there just weren't a lot of windows in there. And when he had room in zone coverage underneath, he completed them and they got a few yards. But pushing the ball downfield, especially in the second half, was really due to really good coverage"
Smith's return will give Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale even more leeway to mix coverage. Humphrey often shadowed Brown all over the field Sunday night, and Smith is capable of shadowing top receivers as well. But regardless of what Martindale wants to call – zone, man-to-man, blitzes – there is no reason to hold back.
"Whenever we played 'man,' I think you had to give these three corners credit," Harbaugh said. "They played tight man-to-man coverage. It's a good problem to have, the fact that we'll have another really good player playing corner, and we'll have the chance to put another guy out there that can cover people."
Smith's return could mean the end of Carr's consecutive game starting streak, which stands at 164 games and is the longest current streak among NFL defensive players. Carr knew the streak could be in jeopardy this year, with Humphrey blossoming into an upper echelon corner, and Smith already a proven player. However, Carr has played some of the best football of his career during Smith's suspension. That leaves the Ravens with an interesting decision when it comes to extending Carr's streak.
"I think who starts and all that is one thing, but really, they're all going to play, and they're going to play a lot, and that's good for the Ravens," Harbaugh said.
Carr made it clear after Sunday's game that winning is a much higher priority than his streak.
"I'm excited that he (Smith) is coming back," Carr said. "I know he's been training, grinding his butt off. He's excited to get back with us. It will add one more dominant piece to our group. In the secondary, we take pride in locking people up. We've got big, strong physical corners, a scrappy nickel (Young), and (Anthony) Levine, a do-it-all-type of guy.
"I just want to win football games. I don't have any pride issues. Keep it simple, man. May the best man play. Let's get ready to go and win these football games."
Beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh had special meaning to the Ravens' defense after being picked apart by Roethlisberger and company during their two previous visits to Pittsburgh. However, the season is still young. None of this early-season success will matter to the Ravens if they don't continue to play well.
The Ravens view Smith's return as another piece to the puzzle, another step toward becoming a dominant defense. Carr said the secondary should have more fun once Smith joins the party.
"We don't blink," Carr said. "They made a couple of plays on us early. We came in at halftime, made adjustments, played sound football, don't make mistakes. We're flying around, communicating, hitting ball carries, knocking balls out, celebrating. It's a lot of fun out there. That's when you dominate."