Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey returned to practice on a limited basis Thursday after missing the last two games with a thigh injury – a big development for Baltimore's secondary.
Humphrey has been the team's most consistent cornerback this season, and without him the Ravens have lost two straight, surrendering 53 points over the last five quarters.
If Humphrey can play Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, it will give Baltimore more options for defending the Steelers' dynamic wide receiver tandem of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Brown leads all NFL wide receivers with eight touchdowns while Smith-Schuster has the same number of catches as Brown (46), and more receiving yards (594) than Brown (552).
Humphrey had a superb game against the Steelers on Sept. 30, when the Ravens shutout Pittsburgh in the second half during a 26-14 victory. He was given the assignment of shadowing Brown wherever he lined up. The Ravens could elect to have Humphrey shadow Brown again, but it's unknown how the return Smith, who missed the first matchup because he was on suspension, will affect the game plan.
Regardless of their strategy, it's always important to be healthy at cornerback when facing the Steelers.
"Hopefully, we'll be at full force in there; hopefully, we don't know yet," Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. "But, I'm excited about all the corners we have going into this game. I'm really confident with them."
Offensive Line Health Is Improving, But Still Missing Two Starters
Injuries continue to be a major concern, particularly on the offensive line.
Both Ravens starting tackles were still not on the field for Thursday's practice – left tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) and right tackle James Hurst (back). Rookie Orlando Brown Jr. has started the past two games at right tackle and Jermaine Eluemanor replaced Stanley on Sunday after he was injured.
The Steelers are tied for second in the league in sacks (24) and will likely put even more emphasis on trying to pressure Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco if the offensive line is shorthanded.
Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg praised Offensive Line Coach Joe D'Alessandris for the work he is doing with the injury-riddled line. Mornhinweg said he would not simplify the game plan.
"I hate to do that," Mornhinweg said. "There is that fine line – you make a good point. (But) I learned this a long, long time ago. Let's not underestimate how much the players can do and perform. They can do an awful lot. We have a lot of sharp guys. Now, doing it together becomes important."
In positive news, starting left guard Alex Lewis returned to practice, as did rookie offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman (calf). They were both limited.
Lewis has missed the last two games after suffering a scary-looking neck injury Week 6 against the Tennessee Titans. If Lewis and Bozeman return, it would strengthen the left guard position where the Ravens have started three different players the past three weeks. Hroniss Grasu started last week in place of Bozeman.
Friday's injury report will give a better indication of which players might be available on Sunday, but linebackers C.J. Mosley (thigh) and Tim Williams (ankle), and safety Tony Jefferson (hamstring) all missed their second day of practice. Running back Alex Collins (foot) did not practice Thursday after practicing on a limited basis Wednesday.
Mornhinweg and Jerry Rosburg Don't Rule Out Ty Montgomery Seeing Action
Newly-acquired running back Ty Montgomery has a versatile skill set as a running back, receiver and kick returner. If he gets acclimated quickly after being traded by the Green Bay Packers on Tuesday, Montgomery could see action Sunday.
Special Teams Coordinator/Assistant Head Coach Jerry Rosburg is impressed by Montgomery's toughness as a kick returner. With the Packers this season, Montgomery averaged 21.0 yards on 10 kick returns, with a long of 27 yards. He fumbled on his last return with the Packers, which led to him being traded to Baltimore.
"I see a guy that runs the ball with elusiveness, but also a physicality," Rosburg said. "I like that about returners. I like returners that can break a tackle and fall forward. He certainly brings that to the ball game."
Montgomery could also work his way into the running back rotation. He was a sure-handed receiver with the Packers, in addition to a back willing to run inside, with enough speed to bounce outside when needed. Collins' absence from practice Thursday could increase the chance Montgomery will play.
"He looks great," Mornhinweg said of Montgomery. "He's a fine player. He's really studying hard. Much of it is familiar to him, some of the verbiage is just a little bit different, so he's working hard to get himself ready to go."
Martindale Fired Up for Steelers, Compares Rivalry to Fighting in Middle School
Leave it to Martindale to make a childhood analogy regarding the Ravens-Steelers rivalry. Last week, Martindale compared Carolina quarterback Cam Newton to that kid in school who always seemed bigger and stronger than everyone else, who looked like he should be driving to the playground in a car.
Thursday, Martindale said the Ravens' defense would bounce back from Sunday's subpar performance and approach the Steelers game like a fight after school.
"We're focused on the Steelers," Martindale said. "Let's put it in perspective. You look at this two ways. When you were in school, about the fifth or sixth grade, and two of the toughest guys are getting ready to fight, or maybe you were one of those tough guys who were getting ready to fight after school.
"A rivalry game, you're sitting there in third period saying, 'Oh man, we have to go. How am I going to attack this one?' Because, you know you have to go. A stomachache is not going to get you out of this fight after school. And, right now, we're about in the fourth period, thinking about this thing that's going to happen at 1 o'clock on Sunday."
Martindale urged Ravens fans at M&T Bank Stadium to bring their best support for a game the Ravens need to win badly.
"When we played against the Saints, the fans were fantastic," Martindale said. "We need to see purple and black show up for this one, because we have to have the same advantage as what they (Steelers) had at their home game. So, we're excited about the people from Dundalk, Carroll County, Westminster, Aberdeen, East [and] West Baltimore, to come out. It helps the defense, it really does. So if you care about your Ravens, let's be there and let's be loud."