The Baltimore Ravens have managed to do a wonderful job in keeping the drop-off from Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb's injuries to a minimum. With starting cornerback Jimmy Smith now sidelined after a successful groin surgery, that defense will be tested like never before this season.
Many people once feared the vaunted Ravens defense, never wanting their teams to face the wrath of Lewis and Ed Reed, and making them a top pick in many fantasy leagues. But after the injuries and inconsistent play, they look a lot more human to the rest of the AFC.
Still, Baltimore sits at 7-2 atop the AFC North. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals are nipping at their heels, but it's clear that the Ravens are in control of their own destiny yet again.
However, Smith's injury could be a huge blow to their playoff hopes, and in scaring off offenses on the rest of the schedule.
CB Jimmy Smith has had groin surgery. Successful surgery in Philadelphia. He's expected to be back before the end of the season.— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) November 15, 2012
As noted by the team's Twitter account, the Ravens hope he can return before the season is over. But if the schedule is any indication of what kind of trials this team will face over the last seven weeks of the season, it could get ugly very quickly.
Baltimore has managed to survive under the "bend but don't break" rule for the past several games. They've given up big yardage to teams like the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys, but still have wins to show for it in those games.
Surprisingly, the defense ranks 26th in the league in both rushing and passing yards allowed per game. That's uncharacteristic for this team, but another warning sign that things aren't as gravy as the team's 7-2 record suggests.
Smith actually started the season as the team's nickel corner, but moved into the starting role after Webb's season-ending injury. For now, veteran CB Corey Graham will move into the starting role and second-year man Chykie Brown will resume the nickel role.
Those guys are one of the reasons Carson Palmer was able to throw for 368 yards, although the game was decided well before Palmer got a big chunk of his change.
Luckily it looks like the Steelers will be without Ben Roethlisberger for this week's Sunday Night Football matchup. Still, with a lot of focus on the running game, these corners are going to have to play man coverage against a very fast crop of receivers.
We'll find out a lot about the Ravens over the next three-to-four weeks. Win against Pittsburgh once and Cincinnati again, and the division is all but locked up. Lose crucial games there, and to defending champion New York, and things look a lot murkier with an eye on the postseason.
Ethan Grant is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report's Breaking News Team and a syndicated writer on the site.
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