There is nothing second rate about the Ravens' secondary. It's the strength of their defense, arguably the best secondary in the NFL and one of the keys to their emergence as Super Bowl contenders heading into the second half of the season.
The Ravens (6-2) are riding a four-game winning streak and the secondary is as strong as it's been all year now that cornerback Jimmy Smith is back in the lineup after a six-game absence. Baltimore has four starting-caliber cornerbacks – Smith, Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Brandon Carr.
They have a six-time Pro Bowl safety in Earl Thomas playing alongside Chuck Clark, known for his defensive acumen. Clark's command of the defense is so solid that he wears the mic'd helmet and relays the defensive signals, although he has made just six career starts.
Asked how good the Ravens' secondary can be, Smith was not bashful.
"We can be really good," Smith said. "We have a lot of talent out there, a lot of smart players. That really stands out with our guys. We have the physicality. We have everything we need."
Smith's return during a 37-20 victory over the New England Patriots was the first glimpse of Baltimore's secondary with their top four corners in action. It was impressive. Tom Brady had his lowest quarterback rating of the season (80.4) against the Ravens while Thomas intercepted the future Hall of Famer in the fourth quarter, only the fifth pick Brady has thrown this season.
Brady never found a consistent mismatch he could exploit, largely due to the versatility and depth of Baltimore's secondary. Humphrey, Peters, Thomas and Clark played all 67 defensive snaps. Smith played 81 percent of the defensive snaps (54) while Carr played 70 percent (47 snaps).
New England went almost exclusively with three-wide receiver formations featuring Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu and Phillip Dorsett. But the Ravens had an answer.
Humphrey traveled with Edelman (10 catches, 89 yards) and made him work for everything. Smith defended aggressively like he had never been away. Peters led the Ravens in tackles with eight, showing he is not just a cover corner but a tackler as well. Meanwhile, Carr seamlessly switched from corner to safety, continuing to show his willingness to do whatever is asked to win.
"He's just such a great teammate," Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale said of Carr. "So selfless in his approach."
How Martindale chooses to utilize the Ravens' deep secondary talent will vary from week to week. The Ravens will defend the Bengals and rookie quarterback Ryan Finley differently than they did defended Brady, but the versatility of Baltimore's defense is part of what makes it special.
"It just makes your game plan be more flexible," Martindale said. "Quite a few times against New England we didn't even have a linebacker on the field. Each week it changes. You have a different set of problems, if you will, to attack."
Finley will be making his first NFL start, which means the Ravens don't have much to go on when it comes to watching tape. Martindale joked about the effort the coaching staff has put into getting intel on Finley.
"We've watched college tape on him, we've watched preseason tape on him," Martindale said. "One of the coaches in the defensive meeting said, 'What's next, we going to watch the high school Rival tapes?' I'd like to say we're prepared for him. We'll see on Sunday."
Finley would be hard-pressed to find a more challenging secondary than Baltimore's to debut against. Humphrey is playing at an All-Pro level, the only NFL defender with two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Meanwhile, the move by General Manager Eric DeCosta to acquire Peters in a midseason trade was a difference-making deal.
Peters has more interceptions (25) than anyone since entering the league in 2015. He had a pick-six against the Seattle Seahawks in his Ravens debut, and Peters has worked diligently to get up to speed quickly on the Ravens' system.
"It's still kind of fresh and new, but everything's running smooth," Peters said. "The preparation and stuff has been cool."
Peters has been with the team for two games. Smith has only played two games this season. Thomas is playing his first season with the Ravens, and Clark has only started three games since Tony Jefferson's season-ending knee injury.
A four-corner offense can be a weapon in basketball. A secondary with four corners as talented as Humphrey, Peters, Smith and Carr is an advantage in football as well. There are many reasons to think the secondary will perform even better down the stretch if everyone stays healthy.
"We still have a lot football left to figure out what we're going to do with everybody and how we're going to do it," Peters said. "The best thing is that everybody can do a lot of things. That's what makes it so versatile."