The surprising emergence of Brandon Stephens as the Ravens’ top cornerback: ‘I love the island’

It was summertime and jobs were up for grabs in Owings Mills. Would third-year Ravens defensive back Brandon Stephens take over the nickel cornerback role or end up at safety as coach John Harbaugh initially planned?

It turned out neither, of course, and last week’s performance by Stephens in a Thursday night win over the Cincinnati Bengals was only the latest example of why his move to the outside has turned out better than even Baltimore could have expected.

With three-time Pro Bowl selection Marlon Humphrey out with a calf injury, the 25-year-old onetime college running back lined up against one of the NFL’s best wide receivers, Ja’Marr Chase, on 22 of 35 routes, including in press coverage on 15 of those routes, according to Next Gen Stats. Chase was targeted just three times when Stephens was the nearest defender and finished with one catch for 2 yards, including a meaningless touchdown with 1:12 remaining in the Ravens’ 34-20 win.

“Corner is my type of game,” Stephens said Wednesday. “I love the island.

“The island is not for everybody. It’s mainly just confidence. Confidence in your technique, being fearless out there. Whoever is front of you, you’re in front of them. It’s a mindset.”

The journey to that island, though, was years in the making.

A three-star running back out of Plano (Texas) Senior High School, Stephens rushed for 1,389 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior, was named All-State and committed to Stanford before choosing UCLA. But after just 65 carries for 277 yards and one touchdown over two seasons and graduating in three years, he figured his best shot at the NFL was at another position. So he transferred to SMU, where he approached then-coach Sonny Dykes with the idea of switching to defense.

The Mustangs had just finished 2018 ranked ninth out of 12 teams in the American Athletic Conference in defensive passing efficiency, and Stephens’ sinewy 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame intrigued the veteran coach.

“I think he’s a really good athlete that’s got good size that can run,” Dykes told reporters in fall camp the following season. “He’s 215 pounds and he’s a physical corner. … It’s hard on a receiver when he gets his hands on you because he is big and he is strong.”

Which is exactly how things played out. In two years at SMU, Stephens had 92 tackles, one interception and 22 passes defended, including 10 in his final year to lead the conference. That led the Ravens to select him in the third round of the 2021 draft. He played all over the field in his first two seasons in Baltimore, mostly at free safety as a rookie and outside cornerback last season.

But with injuries decimating the secondary in training camp and into the early part of this season, including foot surgery that kept Humphrey out of the first four games, the Ravens’ options were limited.

Stephens’ play also gave them no choice, as he continued to outperform the other corners on the roster, including veterans Rock Ya-Sin and Ronald Darby.

After just four starts last year, Stephens has 49 tackles, two interceptions and a career-high eight passes defended while starting every game this season. He played 374 coverage snaps without allowing a touchdown, tops among cornerbacks, before Chase’s score Thursday. And despite being targeted an NFL-high 75 times, per Pro Football Focus, he has allowed just 9.8 yards per completion, 5.9 yards per target, a 70.8 passer rating and garnered a 70.8 PFF grade — all career highs.

After his shutdown performance against Chase, Harbaugh lauded Stephens, saying that he’s met every challenge.

“He is just seeing things quicker and probably processing [things in] more of a subconscious way,” Harbaugh said this week. “He didn’t play defensive back a lot coming here. [He] hadn’t seen a lot of those things happen, so he had to think his way through his reactions.

“Now, [that’s] not the case. He’s reacting his way through his reactions. He’s seen it enough. He just responds and is just playing faster as a result.”

Others on the team have taken notice as well.

Wide receiver Rashod Bateman, whom the Ravens drafted the same year as Stephens, said the cornerback is “very different” compared with his rookie season and that the work he has put in is obvious. Rookie receiver Zay Flowers said that Stephens “challenges” receivers every day in practice and has a daily drive to keep getting better.

“He’s interesting for the corner position because he’s so big,” safety Kyle Hamilton said. “But he runs just as well as anybody. He’s super fast, physical, can come up and tackle. He’s got really good feet for his size.”

Stephens doesn’t lack for confidence, either — a prerequisite for a position where a player can be a hero or a goat in the blink of an eye.

“The confidence came from putting in the work once I decided to transfer,” he said. “I knew I could always play the position, it was just a matter of finding my technique.”

Still, there’s at least one thing he hasn’t done for the Ravens that he still hopes to one day.

“I’ve been crossing my fingers since my rookie year to get a carry,” the former running back said. “I don’t know when it’s gonna come, if it’s gonna come. Hopefully I can break one.”


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