OWINGS MILLS – The bedrock of the Baltimore Ravens’ usually stingy defense has been shaken to the core.
Traditionally, opposing running backs had been a picture of frustration. The football was snapped, a handoff exchanged and the runner would get buried underneath of a pile of bodies.
That hasn’t been the case, though, over the Ravens’ past two games.
In losses to the Minnesota Vikings and the Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens’ seventh-ranked run defense allowed a total of 167 and 142 rushing yards.
Both the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson (143 yards on 22 carries) and the Bengals’ Cedric Benson (120 yards on 27 carries) broke long runs with Peterson dashing off a 58-yard gain and Benson breaking through an Antwan Barnes arm tackle for a 28-yard touchdown run.
As the Ravens (3-3) prepare for the undefeated Broncos and their seventh-ranked running game spearheaded by rookie running back Knowshon Moreno and veteran Correll Buckhalter, they’re confident that they’ve identified the problems and taken the appropriate corrective measures.
“We’ve got to do a better job of staying in our gaps and controlling blocks and getting off blocks and making a good form tackle,” outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “A lot of times we got out of position and out of our gaps.
“What you try to do when you get out of position is you overcompensate, which makes it worse. You try to make a play. Against backs like those, you can’t give them an inch.”
Bunched together, shoulders turned and over pursuing while chasing the football, the results have been somewhat predictable.
In practically every instance where the Ravens’ run defense broke down, they had a lot of people aligned in one place and the runner was able to cut back toward daylight and take advantage of superior numbers working in his favor.
“All of the big runs we gave up, guys were out of position,” nose guard Kelly Gregg said. “It’s not like they’re coming out and overwhelming us. We worked on it during the bye week. It’s time to get it going. We’ve got to definitely play better.”
For the season, the Ravens are allowing just 91.2 rushing yards per contest.
Opposing runners are only averaging 3.5 yards per carry and have scored just three rushing touchdowns.
In terms of their mentality, the Ravens are hungry to get back on the field and reverse the trend of the past few games.
“We haven’t played well against the run the last couple of weeks,” Johnson said. “I think we’re anxious to get out there and play well. We’ve had a long time to think about it.”
Over the years, the Ravens have been a dominant run-stopping defense.
That hasn’t borne out, though, over the past two games as Peterson and Benson ran through arm tackles and dictated the tempo.
The reaction, or overreactions, to runs have compounded the issue.
“It’s common when you don’t have success or when something happens, it’s common for one guy to say, “I can make that play, I’m going to try to make that play,’” defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “What ends up happening is you can go through that whole ball game against the Vikings, and there are a lot of things going really good, then, all of a sudden, bang, one breaks.
“That’s what we have to have, guys not trying to play the position that they’re not playing and play the defense. Then, we will be fine.”
Moreno and Buckhalter have built a formidable tandem, though.
Moreno, the Broncos’ slashing first-round draft pick from Georgia, has rushed for 381 yards and one touchdown.
And Buckhalter has gained 313 yards on just 47 carries, averaging 6.7 yards per attempt.
The Broncos have changed their old zone-blocking schemes of the past under new coach Josh McDaniels, going to a running style more like the New England Patriots’ game plans.
“They’re both good backs,” Gregg said. “We’ve definitely got our work cut out for us. We’ve got to get back to what we do.”
The Broncos have changed their old zone-blocking scheme of the past under new coach Josh McDaniels, going to a running style more like the New England Patriots’ game plans.
Before the Ravens’ breakdowns over the past two games, they were riding an NFL-best 39-game streak without allowing an opposing runner to hit the century mark.
That’s why it’s even more surprising to see the Ravens struggling in one of their most fundamental traits: stopping the run.
“We just need to start the streak again, we were too heartbroken that it happened, maybe the first game it was like, ‘Oh we can’t let it happen again,’” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “Then, it happens again. It was kind of like quicksand, the harder you fight back, the deeper you sink. So, I think we just need to relax. If they pop one, they pop one.”
As far as All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis is concerned, the Ravens can’t afford to dwell on the miscues of the past few weeks.
It’s time to go back to what worked, defeating blocks and making crisp tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
“Just keep playing football,” Lewis said. “Anybody can make a big deal about anything. You go 39 straight games without seeing a 100-yard rusher, and you come back and give up two.