Marlon Humphrey will miss the rest of the season with a torn pectoral muscle sustained in the game at Pittsburgh Dec. 5, leaving the Ravens perilously thin at the cornerback position as they try to retain their grasp on the AFC North lead.
The Ravens have now lost both of their Pro Bowl cornerbacks, Humphrey and Marcus Peters (knee), to season-ending injuries, and every other cornerback on the 53-man roster is dealing with nagging injuries or illness as well.
As the first-place Ravens (8-4) prepare to visit the Cleveland Browns (6-6) in a pivotal AFC North matchup Dec. 11, they will do so with practice-squad cornerbacks potentially thrust into significant roles, an unthinkable proposition six months ago, when cornerback appeared to be the deepest position group on the team.
Head coach John Harbaugh confirmed the extent of Humphrey’s injury at his news conference the day after the Ravens suffered a 20-19 loss to the Steelers. Humphrey suffered the injury when he attempted to tackle Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson on what proved to be the game-winning, 5-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter.
That score gave the Steelers a 20-13 lead, and the Ravens drove the length of the field for a touchdown with 12 seconds left to cut the lead to 20-19. The Ravens opted for a two-point conversion to try to win right then, but Lamar Jackson’s pass glanced off the fingertips of tight end Mark Andrews and fell incomplete.
After the game, Harbaugh said Humphrey’s injury played into the decision to play for the win rather than kick the extra point to force overtime.
“We were pretty much out of corners at that point,” Harbaugh said.
Humphrey, who was signed to a five-year, $97.5 million contract extension last year, finishes his season with 58 tackles, 13 passes defensed and one interception. He also had one forced fumble, after recording eight a year ago.
Even with Humphrey, the Ravens’ pass defense has struggled this year, with recurring coverage breakdowns and tackling issues that have turned short gains into big plays. The Ravens rank 31st in passing defense, allowing 272.4 yards a game. They give up 7.55 yards per pass play, which ranks 30th, and have allowed a league-high 13 plays of 40 yards or more.
Now a further depleted group must prepare for a back-loaded schedule that features quarterbacks Baker Mayfield, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Burrow, Matthew Stafford and Ben Roethlisberger, and receivers such as Jarvis Landry, Davante Adams, Ja’Marr Chase, Cooper Kupp and Diontae Johnson.
And the cornerbacks still in uniform have a host of health issues. Consider:
— Anthony Averett, who has started in place of Peters all season, has shoulder and ankle injuries that limited him in practice last week. He has had bright moments this year but struggled badly in the second half against the Steelers;
— Tavon Young missed every practice last week with illness and played just eight snaps at Pittsburgh;
— Jimmy Smith has missed two of the past three games and is dealing with neck and ankle injuries;
— Chris Westry missed the past two games with a thigh injury; and
— Kevon Seymour, elevated from the practice squad a couple of weeks ago, is on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
The Ravens will probably have to dip into the practice squad just to have four healthy cornerbacks on game day. In the past few weeks they have added Robert Jackson, Kevin Toliver and Mazzi Wilkins to the practice squad.
“We’ll go on with the guys we have,” Harbaugh said. “We have really good players who can step in and play. We’ll be ready to go.”
Jackson was elevated from the practice squad at Pittsburgh and played on special teams. He has played in 17 NFL regular-season games, including one start for the Browns last year. Toliver has played in 29 career games, including two starts with the Chicago Bears. Wilkins appeared in six games in two seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
This seems like an improbable state of affairs considering that when training camp began, the cornerback group was the deepest on the team.
Humphrey and Peters were returning Pro Bowl players, backed up by Averett, Young and Smith, with Westry, Khalil Dorsey, Iman Marshall, Nigel Warrior and rookie fifth-round pick Shaun Wade among those competing for the final roster spots.
The Ravens couldn’t keep them all, and with Wade buried on the depth chart and likely to be cut, the Ravens traded him to the New England Patriots for future draft picks. Dorsey and Marshall both landed on injured reserve in the preseason, meaning they are out for the entire season. Warrior was released in the final roster cutdown and subsequently claimed via waivers by the Seattle Seahawks.
Peters then suffered a season-ending knee injury just days before the season opener, and the depth at the position quickly began to thin. Humphrey’s injury becomes another crippling blow in a season filled with them.
“We’ve got a lot of injuries, so we’ve been dealing with stress all season,” defensive lineman Brandon Williams said after the Steelers game, “and we’ve still been able to overcome it. So that’s what we plan on doing. It’s a ‘Next Man Up’ mentality, so the show must go on.”
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