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OWINGS MILLS — Ray Lewis’ accusation is still hanging in the air. In the All-Pro middle linebacker’s opinion, the Baltimore Ravens’ defense has become too cute, one of the words he often uses to express his disapproval.
Lewis is of a firm belief that for the defense to regain its old swagger and dominance it must embrace its roots of hard-nosed, blue-collar football.
The Ravens have become too consumed with "trickery," Lewis vented following a disheartening 27-13 loss Sunday to the usually-beatable Cleveland Browns as last year’s top-ranked defense gave up four big plays, including cornerback Chris McAlister being scorched by Braylon Edwards on a 78-yard touchdown pass, and didn’t register a sack.
"Sooner or later, you can’t trick everybody," Lewis said. "Line up and beat the man in front of you. That’s it. There ain’t nothing to be concerned about.
"Bottom line, sooner or later, you have to line up and beat the man in front of you. If you’re doing that, you’ve got nothing to hold your head down about."
Against the Browns, McAlister surrendered the bomb to Edwards as former Baltimore castoff Derek Anderson had an eternity to locate him downfield.
Plus, running back Jamal Lewis ripped off a 28-yard run. And brash tight end Kellen Winslow had receptions of 49 and 25 yards to set up a pair of touchdowns.
Although defensive coordinator Rex Ryan’s unit is now ranked 10th in the league, allowing 301.8 yards per contest with just six sacks and two interceptions, Ravens coach Brian Billick cautioned against a rush to judgment considering that cornerback Samari Rolle has missed two games with an undisclosed illness and defensive end Trevor Pryce is sidelined with a broken wrist.
"Not too cute, but adjusting to what they’re doing coverage-wise when you’re down in the secondary, opting more for coverage than pressure, sure," Billick said. "Rex and his staff will do a great job deciding going into this game, ‘Have we been too passive because of who we have in?’
"’Do we need to be more aggressive? Do we need to blitz more?’ All that analysis goes on."
Although the Ravens remain stout against the run, ranking third overall with an average of 71.0 yards per contest, they have become increasingly vulnerable to explosive plays.
If it wasn’t the Arizona Cardinals’ Anquan Boldin catching 14 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns, it was the New York Jets’ Jerricho Cotchery catching seven passes for 165 yards and a touchdown or the Cincinnati Bengals’ Chad Johnson with five catches for 95 yards and a score.
"I’m always concerned," Billick said. "They had four big plays, but it was enough to make the difference. So, those four plays defensively have to be addressed.
â€œSomeone might say, ‘It’s only four plays, how big a deal is it?’ Well, it was four plays enough for us to get beat."
A lot of the issues come back to not generating enough heat on opposing quarterbacks.
Linebackers Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs, who combined for 19 sacks a year ago as Baltimore finished second overall with 60 total sacks, have no sacks.
Scott, who had the lone quarterback hit on Anderson, has increased coverage responsibilities in the wake of All-Pro linebacker Adalius Thomasâ€™ departure.
Suggs, whose last regular-season sack came against the Buffalo Bills on Dec. 31, has drawn double-team blocking attention ever since Pryce got hurt.
Pryce led the Ravens last season with 13 sacks, experiencing a career renaissance as he bullied blockers whether he was lining up at end or tackle.
His replacement, former second-round pick Dwan Edwards, has been stonewalled at the line of scrimmage with just one tackle in two starts.
"Right now, we’re not generating enough pass rush with just a four-man rush," Billick said. "A lot of different reasons why we get into the configurations that we do, but we’ve got to get back on track. It minimalizes it to say, ‘besides Trevor.’ That’s pretty substantial and getting Trevor back will be big for us."
Pryce is slated to return between the St. Louis Rams game on Oct. 14 or against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 5 following the bye.
Regardless, the Ravens just donâ€™t seem to be as intimidating as they used to be.
Just listen to Edwardsâ€™ bragging for evidence of that.
"Chris McAlister is known to sit on some things," Edwards said. "I gave him a quick inside move and he bit, so I exploded past him. It was something I have been studying in the offseason and I knew it was possible."
At this point, the breakdowns qualify as more than an aberration. Itâ€™s a trend. Will it become the norm?
The defense has allowed 27 points to the Bengals, 26 points to the Cardinals and 27 points to the Browns for a 22.5 season average to rank 18th in the NFL.
"This league is too shallow for error," Lewis said. "These things will catch up with you every time."
Yet, this might be the week where the Ravens get well.
The San Francisco 49ers will start 35-year-old former Baltimore quarterback Trent Dilfer because Alex Smith is out with a separated shoulder.
Dilfer, who completed 12 of 33 passes for 128 yards and was sacked five times in his first game action since 2005, will direct an offense that ranks last with averages of 213.3 yards of total offense and 118 passing yards.
Still, it’s no longer regarded as a lock that the Ravens will shut down anyone completely.
"We’ve got the personnel, we’ve got the scheme," Scott said. "There’s nothing wrong that’s not fixable. We’ve got to get back to the fundamentals and watch the film. The film doesn’t lie. We need to make some corrections."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.