The Ravens haven’t often had to consider a life without Marlon Humphrey. Their star cornerback has missed just six games over the past four years, and only those because of a fluky pectoral injury and a teamwide COVID-19 outbreak. The snaps Humphrey misses in most games can be counted on one hand; only four times in his past 64 appearances has he played less than 90% of the Ravens’ defensive snaps.
And still that might be enough missed time to send shivers down the spines of Ravens officials, now counting down the days until Humphrey returns from the minor foot surgery he underwent Wednesday. One month from Thursday, the Ravens go to Cincinnati for a Week 2 AFC North showdown. The last time they faced the Bengals without Humphrey might’ve been the darkest day in the franchise’s defensive history.
The outcome in that game, a day-after-Christmas walloping in 2021, was not especially surprising: Bengals 41, Ravens 21. The sheer helplessness of a Baltimore team ravaged by injuries and COVID, however, was. Quarterback Joe Burrow had only coal for the Ravens’ secondary, finishing with a career-high 525 passing yards and four touchdowns. No Ravens defense has ever allowed more than the 575 yards surrendered inside Paul Brown Stadium (now Paycor Stadium).
If the Ravens’ 2023 season started Sunday, it’s unclear whether their cornerback room would be in any better shape. Rock Ya-Sin (knee), the projected starter opposite Humphrey, has missed the past two weeks of practice, though he’s expected back soon. Jalyn Armour-Davis and Arthur Maulet, both in the mix for significant roles, are sidelined with minor injuries. Damarion “Pepe” Williams (ankle) will be out until at least October. Trayvon Mullen’s season is likely over after toe surgery.
All are notable pieces. None can carry a room in the way Humphrey was expected to. On a team with limited cornerback depth, the three-time Pro Bowl selection was among the Ravens’ most indispensable players, a receiver-blanketing, fumble-forcing, dirty-work-doing chess piece. Now Humphrey faces a recovery timetable that coach John Harbaugh on Wednesday called “indeterminate.” His foot injury, while “not a long-term deal,” could sideline him for the season’s opening weeks.
The Ravens have 24 days until they welcome the Houston Texans to M&T Bank Stadium for their Sept. 10 season opener, 24 days to figure out a Plan B. Others have largely failed. Since 2019, according to TruMedia, the Ravens have averaged 0.05 expected points added per defensive play with Humphrey on the field, which would be No. 7 overall in the NFL in that span. Without him, they’ve averaged minus-0.08 EPA per play. That would rank 30th.
“It definitely hurts the defense when a leader like Marlon is not out there with us, but I know he’ll get back as soon as he can,” inside linebacker Roquan Smith said Wednesday. “We’ll try to pick up the slack when he’s not out there. But I’m looking forward to him being up there pretty soon.”
Until Humphrey’s back to full strength, Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald will have to operate as if he’s unavailable for the foreseeable future. That could mean looking into the recent past for solutions.
Here’s how the Ravens can get by without their top cornerback.
Relocate Kyle Hamilton (again)
Kyle Hamilton has been one of the Ravens’ most impressive players in training camp. In his move back to a more conventional safety spot, the 2022 first-round pick has looked like a natural. Covering ground as a center fielder, disguising coverages with fellow starting safety Marcus Williams, thundering downhill as a blitzer and run defender — it’s all come easily.
But Humphrey’s absence leaves the Ravens with two starting jobs to fill in the secondary: his own and the slot corner position that Hamilton vacated after last season. Who better to take Hamilton’s old job than the man himself?
Hamilton’s more than qualified. He finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded safety, impressing with his coverage smarts, unique blitzing ability and willingness to fit the run. Even with the occasional lapse in man-to-man coverage, Hamilton was a revelation as the Ravens’ jumbo-size nickel back.
Just as important, the Ravens’ best option for replacing Hamilton at safety is a safer bet than the team’s best options for replacing Hamilton in the slot. Geno Stone started seven games last year in place of the injured Marcus Williams and more than held his own, allowing just 203 yards when targeted in coverage for the entire season, according to PFF. “I thought he played really high-level football for us and helped us win a lot of games,” Harbaugh said after Williams returned in December.
The succession plan at nickel back is murkier. Defensive back Brandon Stephens has played inside, but he could now be more useful as an outside corner. Safety Ar’Darius Washington’s pass defense in camp has been solid, but his size could make him vulnerable against the run. Maulet hasn’t practiced since Aug. 7. Armour-Davis profiles as more of an outside corner.
Even before Humphrey’s injury, Hamilton was projected to have an every-down role in the defense. A move back to the slot wouldn’t preclude that possibility. When the Ravens face the NFL’s more conventional offenses — spread formations, three-wide-receiver personnel groupings — Hamilton could step in as the nickel back, backed by Williams and Stone. When the Ravens face more run-inclined looks — condensed formations, two-tight-end groupings — he could return to partnering with Williams, replaced up front by a linebacker or lineman.
It wouldn’t be simple, but nothing about replacing Humphrey is.
Find another outside cornerback
The Ravens signed Ya-Sin this offseason to start at outside cornerback. Now they need to find another.
One problem: There’s not a lot of unsigned help available. Another issue: Most of the top free-agent cornerbacks play in the slot. William Jackson III, an outside corner who recently visited the Ravens, appeared in just four games last season, hampered by a back injury.
“We’ll look at them, but you have to understand, it’s late,” Harbaugh said Wednesday. “Most guys are on teams right now, so part of that with the guys who are veteran guys is: Who’s in shape? Who’s been working? Who really wants to play this year? Because if you’re a guy that’s out [there], and you’ve got some pedigree, you have to be in shape. You have to be ready to go. When you look at that, it’s really on those guys to be ready to play.”
Even as Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta probes the trade market and evaluates the waiver wire, the team’s search for a short-term Humphrey replacement might end with an internal candidate.
Stephens, who bounced around the secondary over his first two seasons in Baltimore and is now bouncing around again in his third camp with the team, played 54 of his 57 defensive snaps in Saturday’s preseason opener as an outside corner, according to PFF. Targeted eight times overall, the 2021 third-round pick allowed just three catches for 38 yards and graded out as one of the Ravens’ top players in their win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Last season, he allowed 26 catches on 43 targets for 335 yards
“There’s no doubt in my mind that, whatever position I do play, that I can play at a high level,” Stephens, who’s struggled as an outside corner over the past two seasons, said last week. “That’s what training camp is for. That’s what the preseason games are for. It’s to show that I belong to be CB2 or nickel or whatever it is.”
The Ravens’ other options have less pedigree. Kevon Seymour has been one of the team’s most consistent corners in camp, earning praise from Harbaugh for his behind-the-scenes development: “His talent is really starting to express itself.” But he played just six defensive snaps last year, and the 247 snaps he got in 2021 came in the wake of the injury wave that knocked the Ravens’ season off course.
Armour-Davis, meanwhile, has starting-cornerback-caliber tools (a 6-foot-1, 197-pound frame and 4.39-second speed in the 40-yard dash), but the 2022 fourth-round pick has struggled to locate the ball when targeted. A mounting list of injuries, meanwhile, has limited his training camp workload for the second straight year. Armour-Davis, who hasn’t practiced since Saturday because of an undisclosed injury, has yet to appear in a preseason game.
Win on the margins
The Ravens’ pass defense never hinged on Humphrey’s availability. Nor will it hinge on the ability of his replacement. The best medicine for Macdonald’s unit hasn’t changed much, if at all: Stop the run. Harass the passer. Force turnovers.
With the return of Michael Pierce and the growth of Justin Madubuike, Broderick Washington and Travis Jones, the Ravens should have one of the NFL’s stoutest defensive lines. Opponents last season averaged just 1.2 yards before contact on carries last season, according to TruMedia, the NFL’s fourth-lowest mark. After Smith’s arrival in Week 9, the Ravens had the league’s third-most efficient run defense, according to Football Outsiders. The better they can stop the run, the better their margin for error in the secondary will be.
An improved pass rush will help there, too. The Ravens ranked 25th in pressure rate last season, according to Pro Football Reference. Explosive plays were another problem area. Outside linebackers Odafe Oweh and David Ojabo, along with the still-rehabilitating Tyus Bowser, are being counted on to collapse pockets and disrupt drop-backs. The fewer resources the Ravens allocate to their pass rush, the more they can devote to their secondary.
When all else fails, the Ravens might just need turnover luck. They had 25 takeaways last season, tied for eighth in the NFL, despite an injury-shortened season from Williams and a one-interception campaign from cornerback Marcus Peters, their two best ballhawks.
Losing Humphrey, if only for a handful of weeks, was a bad break. For as long as he’s out, the Ravens will have to make their own.