Jimmy Smith made a strong case to be Baltimore's most valuable defensive player Sunday.
A back injury forced Smith into a spectator role, and the Ravens had no answer for prolific wide receiver Dez Bryant and the Dallas Cowboys' passing attack without their top cornerback in the lineup.
With Smith out, cornerback Shareece Wright stepped back into the lineup after missing the last three games with a thigh injury, and corners Tavon Young and Jerraud Powers also got the start. Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott threw touchdowns in each of their directions while leading the Cowboys to a 27-17 victory.
"It presents a tough challenge as a defense when you don't have your best corner out there," veteran safety Eric Weddle said. "But, we got to play with who we got. We're confident in who we had. We stopped them before, but we just didn't stop them when we needed to."
The buildup to Sunday's matchup at AT&T Stadium focused on the battle in the trenches between Baltimore's top-ranked run defense and the Cowboys' first-place ground game. The Ravens mostly bottled up the Cowboys' rushing attack, but Dallas found plenty of success once it put the game in Prescott's hands.
Dallas started to air it out in the second quarter with the Ravens leading 7-0, and it quickly became clear that the Ravens couldn't stop it. Prescott had just 31 passing yards in the first quarter, but he finished with 301 passing yards and three touchdowns.
He spread the ball around to eight different targets, but Bryant was clearly his go-to receiver. Bryant overmatched Wright and Young, and he racked up 80 yards and a pair of touchdowns on six receptions.
"He's a good receiver," Wright said. "They're a good team and they're going to make their plays, and we need to make ours."
All of the attention that Bryant attracted consequently opened up opportunities for receivers Cole Beasley and Brice Butler and tight end Jason Witten on underneath routes. The Ravens also knew they had to respect the ground game.
"It's just tough to roll coverage to a guy like Dez, but then you're worried about the run game and trying to stop that, and trying to stop Beasley on third down," Weddle said.
Sunday was the second time this season that Smith has missed significant game time because of an injury, and both instances produced remarkably similar results.
The first time came in a Week 6 loss to the New York Giants where a concussion forced Smith to miss the entire second half. Giants All-Pro receiver Odell Beckham Jr. then went off for a huge day, finishing with a career-high 222 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Playing without Smith clearly hurt Baltimore's defense, but the Ravens weren't interested in pinning the loss on his absence.
"We had some guys missing – that's not an excuse – they still played. I just think we got to be better in certain areas," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We got guys that are capable in here."
As Prescott and the passing game got into a rhythm, the Ravens couldn't get them off the field in the second half. Dallas consistently moved the chains to keep drives alive and chew up the clock, and then allowed them to keep feeding the ball to NFL's leading rusher Ezekiel Elliott.
The Ravens defense limited Elliott to just 26 yards in the first half, but he found holes in the second half as the Cowboys wore down Baltimore's defense. The Ravens also couldn't get off the field in the second half, as the Cowboys converted on four of their five third-down plays.
"We just got to make the plays, in the fourth quarter," Wright said. "We need to get off the field on third down."
It's unclear how long Smith's injury will linger, but the Ravens definitely know they need him on the field for their playoff push.
"Down the stretch, we definitely need our warriors, not only in the secondary, but everywhere," Suggs said. "If we're going to fight for our playoff lives, you want your biggest horses running the Kentucky Derby for you."
The secondary and the entire defense now needs to regroup as the Ravens (5-5) head back to Baltimore with the lead in the AFC North because they hold the tiebreaker over the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-5).
The Ravens' first-place defense allowed 417 total yards to the Cowboys and didn't come up with any turnovers, and Baltimore's veteran defenders emphasized that they need to play better in the final six games of the regular season.
"It's a six-game season," Weddle said. "I believe this game will be a defining moment in our season, and we'll just continue to go up and learn from this. And it will make us a better team in the long run."