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OWINGS MILLS — The football skidded across the ground, popped out of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Steve McNair’s hand with a classic tomahawk chop from behind.
It was a textbook maneuver by Cincinnati Bengals rookie safety Chinedum Ndukwe during the Ravens’ 21-7 loss Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
And it was an all too familiar sequence for the defending AFC North champions who are now winless in four division contests after committing six turnovers against Cincinnati.
One year removed from leading the NFL with a plus-17 turnover margin, the Ravens (4-5) are now tied for 24th in the league in this critical statistic.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the other two teams tied with Baltimore’s minus-7 margin are the winless Miami Dolphins (0-9) and the New York Jets (1-8).
â€œThe turnover gods, theyâ€™re not with us right now," offensive guard Jason Brown said.
It’s not hard to identify the major culprit in this dramatic reversal of fortune.
The Ravens lead the league with 15 lost fumbles, including McNair’s seven. Conversely, the defense has generated a respectable 15 takeaways on 11 interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
Last season, Baltimore led the NFL with 28 interceptions and finished second to the Chicago Bears with 40 total takeaways.
Primarily, it’s an offense that hasn’t taken proper care of the football that’s to blame for this negative development.
When asked what the team can do to cut down on turnovers, Ravens coach Brian Billick had a simplistic response.
"Not turn it over," he quipped. "Just some good hits, some good plays. As usual with turnovers, there’s only so much you can do with it. It’s not like if it’s a free runner that blows up the quarterback. Then, that’s schematic.
"You can do something with that. If it’s a guy unaccounted for heading up into the box, then someone blew an assignment. But when it’s just hanging onto the ball, there’s only so much you can do with it."
Even running back Willis McGahee hasn’t been immune to the seemingly contagious fumbling plague.
He has lost a fumble in each of the Ravens’ past two games, fumbling three times for the season.
"They were constantly ripping the ball out," McGahee said of a Bengals defense that entered the game ranked 31st in total defense. "They were going to get it sooner or later. Unfortunately, mine came out.
"Basically, we’ve just got to protect the ball more. I went down on one hand, I should have gone down with two hands, but I was trying to get extra yards and make something happen. But I see you can’t get it like that."
Last season was marked by more than the NFL’s top-ranked defense forcing a dozen fumbles and finishing second in the NFL in sacks.
The offense was much more careful with the football, tying a franchise record originally established in 2004 for fewest turnovers with only 23 all season.
But the Ravens are only one shy of that number now with seven games remaining on the schedule.
What has happened in terms of ball security with a 20-turnover swing from this same point in the season last year?
"I say it’s the luck of the draw, you name me one person who hasn’t turned the ball over," McGahee said. "I don’t care who you are. You’re going to turn the ball over regardless."
That attitude would seem to presume the Ravens are bound to continue their fumbling ways.
McGahee said he regularly apologizes to his defensive teammates for putting them at a disadvantage with short fields for opponents to capitalize on, another common theme during the Ravens’ first nine games.
"I say something to them, I say, ‘Y’all just gotta work with us,’" McGahee said. "I’m pretty sure they’ve been in this situation before.
"I’ve been in this situation before, and it’s not good on the offensive side. You always want to do more on the offensive side of the football, but we’re really not doing that."
The Ravens’ turnover issue has been especially problematic in division contests.
The Ravens opened the season at Cincinnati with six turnovers in a 27-20 loss, following that up with two turnovers in a 27-13 loss to the Browns, four turnovers in a 38-7 loss to the Steelers and giving away another six last weekend.
The total differential against division foes is one-sided with 18 Baltimore give-aways and just two take-aways to counteract the trend.
At least on the surface, it would appear the Ravens are about to receive some relief Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. They rank last in total defense, allowing 410.6 yards per game. The Browns (5-4) have only forced 14 turnovers and rank 21st in turnover margin with minus-2 ratio.
The Ravens, though, have learned a painful lesson about assuming anything during this rough season.
"They’re not as bad as you think they are, because every time we go up against a bad defense they always seem to be No. 1 when they play us," McGahee said. "They’re not going to be bad, I already know that.
â€œIt’s a rival. They’re going to step their game up a notch, so we gotta step our game up a notch, too."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.