It is extremely rare to see a cornerback lead the NFL in a statistical category that is usually dominated by edge rushers, off-ball linebackers, and interior down linemen. However, that is exactly what Baltimore Ravens’ All-Pro corner Marlon Humphrey did last season. His league-leading eight forced fumbles were two more than the next closest player — Haason Reddick — and four more than the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year, Aaron Donald.
A cornerback leading the league in forced fumbles is almost as inconceivably comparable as a defensive end leading the league, or even ranking in the Top-5 in interceptions.
Speaking of interceptions, the two-time Pro Bowler has recorded just eight in his first four seasons, including just one last year that came in the season opener. His signature ‘fruit punch’ helped make him a household name but he wants to take his game to the next level by intercepting more passes going forward.
He stressed this while addressing the media a few days ago.
“Something I’m trying to focus on this year, going into the season, is really just trying to get the ball more, as far as interceptions,” Humphrey said. “I’ve been talking with my DB coach Chris and just trying to figure out what you’re going to take into the season to have a couple consistent things that you do.”
Cornerback is one of the most cerebral positions in the game and especially at the NFL level. Playing it can be just as mentally taxing as it is physically. Not only do they have to keep up with some of the fastest offensive skill players on the field while backpedaling, but they have no idea what route the pass-catcher is running.
This means that they can’t just rely on their elite athleticism on every play. The best in the game watch copious amounts of film to pick up the tells and tendencies on their upcoming or reoccurring opponents. In order to achieve his goal and put himself in the position to consistently pick off more passes, Humphrey needs a plan of attack on every play which is something his coach constantly reminds him to do.
“What Coach Chris keeps telling me is, ‘Have a game plan when you get to the line.’ That’s something that I think I’m going to take into the season,” said Humphrey.
The biblical verse Proverbs 27:17 is one of the most popular sports metaphors and in the English Standard Version states that “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Humphrey welcomes the challenge of greater competition in practice because it means that he will be better prepared to face the top wideouts on opposing teams.
“When you’ve got really good wide receivers that are doing good things in practice, it makes training camp that much more realistic, because that’s the work we need,” Humphrey said. “We try to pride ourselves on being the best secondary, and it’s hard to be a really great secondary when you’ve got two or three good wide receivers. You want to have it to where you’ve got five and six and seven wide receivers, to where it makes it really tough on what wide receivers you pick.”
The Ravens increased the volume of quality receivers on the team this offseason by adding Sammy Watkins in free agency and Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace in the draft. These additions will both complement and open things up for Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown, Devin Duvernay, and others. They also added two new offensive coaches in Pass Game Specialist Keith Williams and Wide Receivers Coach Tee Martin.
“It seems like in the past, it was like these three guys, these four guys are for sure going to make it, and then we don’t know about this guy,” Humphrey said. “I feel like this year, it’ll be a really tough decision to figure out who’s going to make it because we’ve got some serious stuff. I think the coaches over there – the new coaches – are really pushing them to be great.”
Humphrey is an entrenched starter on the Ravens’ defense and is viewed as one of the top defensive backs and overall defenders in the entire league, regardless of position. As such, he could’ve joined some of his fellow veterans on the team and opted out of the voluntary portions of the offseason program.
Not only did he show up, but he also showed out and was one of the most vocal leaders on the field and in the locker room. Humphrey was eager to get back to work to perfect his craft and be around his new and returning teammates.
“As far as OTAs, some guys come, some guys don’t, it’s an optional thing,” Humphrey said. “But for me, I just wanted to get back, get some sessions in, get with my coach, work on a couple things. It’s a long offseason, and I was ready to get to work – work with some of these guys. And so, I enjoyed it. I feel like I wanted to see how our draft picks looked, how some of the guys have been working in the offseason. It was a good OTAs and minicamp, and it was really good to see everybody all together the past two days to get some good work in.”
Getting back to the premise of this article, if Humphrey wants to improve his ball-hawking skills, he needs to look no further than his teammate starting opposite of him. Marcus Peters’ 31 interceptions since 2015 are the most by any player and he’s recorded at least three every year he’s been in the league.
Humphrey is a true student of the game who not only watches a lot of film and craves coaching, but he soaks up all the wisdom and tricks trade from his more seasoned cohorts. He showed off some of his improved ball skills during Mandatory Minicamp by intercepting Lamar Jackson and was caught on camera getting some individual peer-to-peer coaching from veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith.
As amazingly impressive as his prowess and propensity for punching the ball out of the grasps of ball carriers and pass-catchers is, those loose balls aren’t always recovered by him or one of his teammates. Sometimes the ball doesn’t take a favorable bounce for the defense and will either roll out of bounds or back into the possession of the opposing offense.
Interceptions are a guaranteed change of possession as long as the intercepting player doesn’t fumble the ball himself. If Humphrey can get his hands on more balls and the result is more picks, he’d be taking both his game and the entire defense to the next level.