OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey stood in the middle of the Baltimore Ravens' locker room on Wednesday and casually answered questions from reporters (even throwing a nice jab at wide receiver Mike Wallace) like he had been doing it for years.
No one could tell if the first-round pick is feeling any pressure replacing top corner Jimmy Smith. No one could tell if he's nervous playing a prime-time game against the Ravens' biggest rival, with playoff implications on the line.
And no one could tell if he is excited or sweating the toughest test any cornerback could get this year in his first career NFL start: Humphrey will line up Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown, a five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver who leads the NFL in receiving.
"You can't tell ever how good you are until you go against some of the best guys," Humphrey said.
Brown is unquestionably the best, and this is the ultimate challenge. He has made 720 career catches, whereas Humphrey has been in the league a total of 223 days. Brown has 212 more receiving yards than anyone else in the NFL this season. And he is close to becoming the first receiver in 12 years to lead the NFL in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns (Steve Smith Sr. was the last to do so, in 2005).
Humphrey has a good idea of where Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is going to attack the NFL's No. 3 pass defense.
"I’m sure if there’s a weak link they have to pick out, it would definitely be me," Humphrey said. "Big Ben likes to throw it up, he’s a great quarterback, so I’m sure if he has to take those shots, it will probably be at me."
The loss of Jimmy Smith to an Achilles injury is a significant one, especially in this game. In eight games with Smith in the lineup, the Ravens allowed one 100-yard game and one touchdown to Brown.
It's a big role to fill for Humphrey, but the Ravens have praised him for his maturity and composure ever since they selected the talented cornerback with the No. 16 overall pick. The consensus is that the NFL has never been too big for Humphrey in his rookie season, given his Alabama pedigree and football family history (his father, Bobby, was a Pro Bowl running back).
Last Sunday, Humphrey was picked on by the Detroit Lions after Smith was hurt in the second quarter. He allowed five catches for a season-high 116 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. Humphrey essentially got beat on two jump balls that turned into 40-yard catches by Marvin Jones.
But in the fourth quarter Humphrey made an interception by catching an overthrown pass to set up a touchdown.
"There are going to be good moments, and there’s always when you play that position -- I don’t care whether you’re a rookie or a veteran -- you’re going to have moments where they’ll make a play," coach John Harbaugh said. "Marlon seems like he has a good understanding of that. He plays hard, he plays focused, he’s developing his technique and things like that. He’s a very talented guy. I’m looking forward to seeing how he does. I think he’ll do well."
The lack of depth at cornerback cost the Ravens in the playoffs in 2014 and hurt their chances of reaching the postseason last year. Three years ago, Baltimore lost in the divisional round at New England in large part because of the struggles of Rashaan Melvin, the seventh cornerback to start that season. Last season, the Ravens watched their hopes of winning the division end as Roethlisberger marched the Steelers 75 yards for the winning touchdown against a secondary that had Shareece Wright instead of Smith.
Since Smith became a regular starter in 2013, the Ravens have held teams to a 48.9 QBR with him on the field and a 59.0 QBR without him. This time, the Ravens get to replace Smith with the second cornerback taken in the 2017 draft.
The Saints' Marshon Lattimore, the first cornerback selected in the draft, was considered a front runner for the NFC defensive rookie of the year award before missing most of the past three games with an ankle injury. It's now Humphrey's time to show what impact he can make.
"He has composure on the field. He has God-given speed," veteran cornerback Brandon Carr said. "The ability he has can make up for a lot of things he hasn't learned yet, as far as technique and the ins and outs of receivers. But he has a knack for just going out there and making plays. He has fun. His energy is incredible on the field."
Humphrey showed his savvy on Wednesday, at least off the field. An interview with reporters was briefly interrupted when Wallace told Humphrey to say he's ready for Brown because of who he practices against every day.
"I see kind of not the best in practice with Mike," said Humphrey, slyly poking fun at Wallace without even flashing a grin. "But this weekend, I will see an elite receiver. Everyone says he's the best in the league. It's definitely a good challenge. I'm looking forward to it."