The Ravens' secondary has been oft-criticized this season, but the unit is improving.
Over the last seven weeks, the Ravens have been very good against the pass, allowing only 188.1 yards through the air per game for the NFL's third-stingiest pass defense. Baltimore owns 10 interceptions during that span, dating back to a Nov. 1 win over the Denver Broncos.
It may be no coincidence that the turnaround – the Ravens gave up at least 258 passing yards in four of their first six contests, including 436 to San Diego's Philip Rivers – took place after Baltimore's Week 7 bye.
Another reason for the emergence of the defensive backfield is the integration of new players.
When Fabian Washington went down for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament on Nov. 22, rookie Lardarius Webb was inserted into the starting lineup. Since then, the third-round draft pick from tiny Nicholls State demonstrated that he possesses the skills of a big-time player.
One of the best tacklers on the team, Webb's toughness and enthusiasm has impressed his teammates.
"He hasn't slowed down at all," said linebacker Ray Lewis. "He wants to learn so much, and he's trying to dissect it all. The conversations we have, he's always trying to grab something, something, something, and he plays the game with a complete passion for it.
"When you have that type of combination in a young kid and you put him on the field, sometimes you find a star very early. I don't want to put too much pressure on him, but I just love the way he plays the game, and I love his approach for the game."
Webb got his first-team baptism out of the way against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 12, where he was targeted multiple times. Now, it seems that opposing teams are respecting him by staying away from his side of the field.
He totaled nine tackles against the Steelers, five two weeks ago in Green Bay and four last Sunday in a 48-3 win over the Detroit Lions.
That day, Webb was critical in holding Lions signal caller Daunte Culpepper to a 16-of-34, 135-yard and two interception performance and 6-foot-4, 240-pound receiver Calvin Johnson to only four catches for 37 yards.
A combination of Culpepper's strong arm and Johnson's sheer size was a perfect storm for what had plagued the Ravens earlier in the year – the deep ball.
Still, Culpepper's longest completion at M&T Bank Stadium ended up being a 19-yard dart to wideout Dennis Northcutt.
"We thought we were going to get way, way, way more shots than we got with that monster they've got other there in Calvin," Webb said. "We thought we were going to get like 100 of them, but they didn't use him as we thought they were going to use them. They played a great game, but we played a great defensive game."
The Ravens have also seen recent contributions from second-year safety Tom Zbikowski, who has two interceptions since filling in for an injured Ed Reed (foot, groin), and nickel back Chris Carr, a cause of much consternation among fans that looked comfortable in Baltimore's sub packages.
Cutler, formerly of the Denver Broncos, is averaging an impressive 232.5 passing yards per game and is on pace for 3,720 yards this year. Known as a fearless gunslinger, he has weapons in speedy wideouts Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox, along with reliable tight end Greg Olson.
The Ravens' coaching staff is somewhat familiar with Cutler because they coached him at the Pro Bowl last year, a reward for the team that loses in the conference championship.
"We know what kind of a talent he is and what he's capable of doing," explained head coach John Harbaugh. "He can make every single throw. He's got some great speed out there, starting with Hester at wide receiver, and then they have a great running back and a very physical offensive line and one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the game. He's kind of a young, up-and-coming guy. It seems like Jay's got a lot of confidence in Olsen at tight end."
Whether Reed is active remains to be seen. His status may not be decided until game time.
"Ed's going to have to get out there and practice and get a feel for it," said Harbaugh. "It will be up to him."
But even if the Ravens meet Chicago without Reed, it is evident that the secondary has players that can answer the call.