OWINGS MILLS – The constant bombardment of the Baltimore Ravens’ secondary has practically left scorch marks on their uniforms.
Exploited for deep strikes nearly every week, the downward spiral has become more than a negative trend plaguing a traditionally stingy defense.
Much to the Ravens’ chagrin, it has become standard operating procedure through six games and a three-game losing streak as they head into their bye week in need of an extinguisher to put out the flames.
The defense has slipped to an uncharacteristic 17th in the NFL in total defense, allowing 332.7 yards per contest. And the pass defense ranks 22nd in the league, allowing 241 passing yards per game with 22 completions of 20 yards or more and six passes of 40 yards or longer.
“The back end is atrocious,” former NFL cornerback Deion Sanders said Sunday night on NFL Network. “It’s not a playoff-caliber defense. They’re not the same defense anymore.”
During a heartbreaking 33-31 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, quarterback Brett Favre victimized the secondary for a season-high three touchdown passes and 278 yards.
And the big plays weren’t confined to only the long completions of 63 and 58 yards to Sidney Rice, another big receiver who thrived at the smaller Baltimore cornerbacks’ expense.
The run defense surrendered a 58-yard jaunt to running back Adrian Peterson, who became the second runner over the past two weeks to eclipse the century mark as he gained 143 yards against a defense that hadn’t allowed someone to rush for 100 yards in two games in a row since 2005.
“We just cannot continue to give up big plays,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “Big plays are the problem, and it’s always a problem. When you give up a lot of yards, it’s always big plays. And if we continue to give up big plays, we’re going to continue to struggle.”
Over the first six weeks of the season, the Ravens have given up a dozen plays of at least 30 yards. They have allowed 13 additional plays between 20 and 29 yards, giving up an average of 21.7 points per game.
What’s the answer?
On Sunday, the Ravens tried virtually everything.
Harbaugh benched starting cornerback Fabian Washington, a move that Washington agreed with.
And Harbaugh inserted Frank Walker to replace Washington. However, Walker struggled markedly with two pass interference penalties in the fourth quarter.
Harbaugh emphasized that it was his decision to bench Washington, which isn’t going to be a permanent move.
“I wanted to give Frank a chance,” he said. “That was my call all the way. We’re going to try to put the guys out there that play well enough for us to get the job done. That’s not a knock on Fabian or Frank or anybody else.
“I know Fabian is a really good player. At that point in time as a coach, you felt like, ‘You know what, I’m going to try something different.’ I guarantee you Fabian is going to be back out there playing again. He has to be, and he’s too talented not to be.”
One personnel change that’s in the offing: rookie cornerback Lardarius Webb is going to have an increased role on defense.
The athletic third-round draft pick has already assumed kickoff return duties. Now, he’s going to play more on defense.
“We need to do that,” Harbaugh said. “I think Lardarius continues to earn more playing time based on the way he’s playing. We gave him more defensive snaps, and he played well in those snaps. When you play well, no matter who you are, your role expands.”
Communication in the secondary has been an issue with confusion over who was supposed to be where at critical junctures.
Free safety Ed Reed has drawn criticism internally for overcompensating for the problems in the secondary and trying to do too much.
Strong safety Dawan Landry’s reactions have been too slow.
“Play better coverage, it’s simple,” Washington said. “We’re not playing how we usually play. We’re a great secondary. We’re just struggling right now.
“A couple of times, I haven’t played the best technique. Confidence-wise, I don’t have a confidence problem at all. You have to keep pushing forward and things will turn around.”
Added Landry: “We have to make sure we’re all on the same page. We don’t get down on ourselves or point fingers. We try to do our best and learn from our experiences.”
And the cornerbacks, especially Walker, are drawing a lot of pass interference penalties.
Walker has a tendency to grab receivers’ jerseys whenever he’s losing ground downfield.
He was chastised for that bad habit during a training camp argument with wide receiver Derrick Mason, who admonished Walker by telling him he would get flagged during games.
On Rice’s 58-yard catch in the fourth quarter that set up the game-winning field goal, Walker was grabbing and hand-checking throughout his pattern.
“The one where he grabbed the jersey, yeah, you can fix that one,” Harbaugh said. “If you’re in better position, you don’t have to grab a jersey. Be in better position and have some help back there, if you’re supposed to have help back there.”
The Ravens have given up nine touchdown passes and intercepted just seven passes.
The Ravens are allowing opposing quarterbacks to average 8.2 yards per attempt and an 89.1 passer rating.
“Part of it’s playing technique against certain routes a little better, part of it is understanding where your help is going to be,” Harbaugh said. “The bottom line is they’re correctable things, both scheme-wise and technique wise, and we’ve got to fix them.”
While Harbaugh regards the Ravens’ problems as fixable, he’s doesn’t think it’s a simple fix.
“People attack you different ways,” he said. “You have a little bit of a transition, we have an idea where we’re at, what we need to do defensively to play good defense.
“I’ve got complete confidence in our coaches and complete confidence in our players that not only can get it done, but we will get it done because issues are very solvable. But we need to do it.”
Walker emphasized that it’s not like the players aren’t advised what’s going to happen beforehand as they’re given detailed scouting reports.
“We know everything the teams are going to do before they do it,” he said. “Me, personally, it’s on me. I’m definitely sick and tired of it.”
During the offseason, the Ravens lost defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to the New York Jets as well as inside linebacker Bart Scott and strong safety Jim Leonhard.
Harbaugh defended new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, but acknowledged that the Ravens are experiencing some growing pains with all of the changes.
“Whatever struggles we’ve had on defense are not due to who’s not here,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of good coaches and players to play good defense. Is there a transition? There’s always a transition. It’s not a transition that we can’t play great defense through, and we intend to.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.