OWINGS MILLS — The NFL became accustomed to the Baltimore Ravens establishing the gold standard for defense over the past decade. Now, the Ravens are transitioning into a still respectable unit that suddenly finds itself vulnerable to potent offenses.
Nowhere has that become more evident than in the fourth quarter where they’ve blown eight leads.
They narrowly avoided a disastrous ending Monday night against the Houston Texans when cornerback Josh Wilson returned an interception for a touchdown in their 34-28 overtime win.
The Ravens managed to surrender a commanding 28-7 lead as the Texans piled up 489 yards of offense and 28 first downs as the 10th-ranked defense allowed quarterback Matt Schaub to pick them apart with drives of 99 and 95 yards to force overtime.
“We’ve just been kind of inconsistent, and it’s cost us,” outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “We’ve been extremely dominant at times, and there have been times we haven’t played so well.”
Despite the defense not being as stingy as previous years like last season when they finished third in the league, the Ravens (9-4) remain in position to make it to the playoffs for the third consecutive year heading into Sunday’s game against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.
However, whether they’re built for a long playoff run remains to be seen.
So far this year, the Ravens have allowed 50 plays of 20 yards or more.
And the defense has dropped to eighth against the run, allowing 98.8 yards on the ground per contest.
The pass defense has fallen to 14th overall, allowing 319.8 yards per game.
The most impressive aspect of the Ravens’ defense is not allowing a ton of points this year, ranking fourth in scoring defense with a 17.6 average.
“The most important stat right now is winning at the end of the game,” safety Ed Reed said. “It doesn’t matter how many leads we’ve blown. You can ask anybody across the league what’s the most important stat right now they care about.”
Outscored 105-74 in the fourth quarter, the Ravens’ veteran-laden defense is displaying troubling signs of getting tired late in games.
“I guess what we need to do better as a team is just play the whole 60 minutes,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “I think it’s just finish guys off, just continue to do what you did in the first half the whole game. Just finish people off.”
The Texans’ final two scoring drives were a combined 27 plays, 194 yards and kept the defense on the field for 7 minutes and 24 seconds.
The Texans converted 7 of 18 third downs and all four of their fourth-down tries.
“Guys were definitely winded,” Reed said. “I can’t say you’ve got be better about your conditioning at this point, but… Defensively, we know we’ve got to get off the field come third down.”
Another reason the Ravens had trouble in the second half against the Texans could be connected to defensive coordinator Greg Mattison deploying a more conservative scheme.
The Ravens brought less blitzes and dropped deeper into coverage with very little press coverage.
The Ravens still feature strong personnel on defense, especially Reed, Suggs, middle linebacker Ray Lewis and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.
However, the secondary lacks a true shutdown cornerback and there isn’t much of a pass rush besides Suggs, who leads the team with 10 sacks and Ngata, who has 5 ½ sacks.
Instead of cornerbacks like Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle, the Ravens now rely upon Chris Carr, Lardarius Webb and Wilson after benching a struggling Fabian Washington.
Is the Ravens’ defense still feared?
“They’ve played at a high level for a long period of time,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “It’s really hard to point to any other organization that’s had that staying power. Whether it’s their defense versus the Steelers or versus the Patriots, this will be a big test for us. This will probably be one of the top defenses, if not the top defense we’ve seen all season.”