OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The question that has been asked in Baltimore since cornerback Jimmy Smith was suspended a month ago is this:
On Sunday night, the NFL's top-ranked defense will deliver its reply in front of a national television audience when the Ravens play the rival Steelers at Heinz Field.
History suggests that Smith has been the ultimate X factor in defending the six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver. In seven regular-season meetings with Smith, Baltimore has held Brown to 60.1 yards receiving per game and one touchdown. In three games with Smith sidelined, Brown has averaged 151 yards receiving against the Ravens and scored two touchdowns, including one that was played in a commercial.
"Well, Jimmy is not coming through the door," safety Eric Weddle said. "So it’s pointless to bring his name up because he’s not playing."
Smith was suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. Take away the 12.5 minutes in which A.J. Green scored three touchdowns, and Baltimore has been one of the top pass defenses in Smith's absence.
Through three games, the Ravens have held opposing quarterbacks to a 67.6 passer rating, which ranks second-best in the league.
The biggest test without Smith remains Brown. Smith is one of the few corners who can be physical with Brown at the line and still be able to run with him.
Brown failed to crack 100 yards receiving in seven meetings with Smith. The Ravens went 5-2 in those games.
When Smith was out, Brown produced 144, 96 and 213 yards receiving in three regular-season games. Baltimore lost all of those games.
"The secondary in those types of games against a great receiver, you have to play great to win," Weddle said. "We expect to do so."
Humphrey, who made his first NFL start against the Steelers last December, remembers how tireless Brown is. When Ben Roethlisberger starts scrambling, Brown turns upfield and runs around, doing everything he can to get open.
"It's the kind of a guy that down the line, you'll look back and say that you were going against some of the best," Humphrey said. "And you can only know how good you are when you go against the best."
When coach John Harbaugh watches film, Brown's playmaking ability jumps out to him along with the same routes run over and over again. That's the challenge for the Ravens: The coaches and players know what's coming, but it's still difficult to defend because of the execution between Brown and Roethlisberger.
"Those things are things he’s made simple concepts, that he and Ben are like one mind on," Harbaugh said. "He’s made that throw on the sideline against us. He’s made it on fade routes, too -- right on the sideline where he makes a great catch and toe-taps it down. You’re just kind of amazed by it. We know that’s what you get when you play the Steelers, that’s what you’re dealing with, and that’s what makes them who they are."
Brown is fifth in the NFL in catches with 24, but he hasn't made as many big plays this season. He's on pace for 1,120 yards, which would be his fewest since 2012.
There have been times this season when Brown has shown his frustration. During the Week 2 game against Kansas City, Brown got heated with offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner.
Roethlisberger doesn't see defenses playing Brown any differently. Teams are still doubling him and holding him, basically doing anything to disrupt his route-running.
"I think the biggest change is we've had other guys step up, and I hadn't had to force it to AB," Roethlisberger said.
Here is a breakdown of the three games in which the Ravens faced Brown without Smith:
The stiff-arm TD
On Nov. 2, 2014, Brown caught 11 passes for 144 yards in the Steelers' 43-23 victory. Brown delivered the game-sealing, 54-yard touchdown that showed he is capable of embarrassing an entire secondary.
Using a stutter step at the line, Brown easily beat cornerback Chykie Brown on a quick out pattern. After making the catch, he stiff-armed safety Will Hill before reversing field and accelerating away from diving cornerbacks Dominique Franks and Lardarius Webb.
This was one of Roethlisberger's six touchdowns in that game. Two days later, the Ravens cut Brown and Franks.
'The Immaculate Extension'
On Dec. 25, 2016, Brown totaled 96 yards on 10 receptions. His final catch clinched the AFC North for the Steelers and knocked the Ravens out of the postseason.
Brown's 4-yard touchdown with nine seconds remaining -- known as "The Immaculate Extension" -- lifted Pittsburgh to a 31-27 win.
Brown caught Roethlisberger's quick pass just short of the goal line. If he had been tackled at the 1-yard line, the game probably would've been over because the Steelers didn't have any timeouts remaining. But despite being held up by Weddle and hit by linebacker C.J. Mosley, Brown stretched the ball across the goal line.
The play was seen again and again by the Ravens in a commercial for the NFL ticket exchange.
"You know, quite honestly, the first time I saw it was in the commercial, which was kind of funny because I lived it. So I don’t really need to see it again," Weddle said last year. "You never forget the bad plays or the plays that are so monumental to your season."
The 213-yard game
On Dec. 10, 2017, Brown produced the fifth-most receiving yards ever against the Ravens (213) as well as some second-guessing.
Former Ravens great Ed Reed publicly asked why the Ravens didn't double-cover Brown more in Baltimore's 39-38 loss to Pittsburgh.
When it came to covering the NFL's leading receiver, Carr gave up five receptions for 117 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. When Humphrey was on him, Brown was limited to two catches for 7 yards.
Dean Pees, who was the Ravens' defensive coordinator at the time, said there was discussion on the sideline about putting Humphrey on Brown.
"In retrospect, we probably should've done that," Pees said.
Harbaugh was asked Monday how tough it is to defend Brown.
"We have the guys that can do it," he said. "Plus, we’ll mix coverages on them, and it won’t be seven-on-seven out there. We’ll be bringing some heat. That’s how you do it."