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OWINGS MILLS — Perhaps nowhere has the Baltimore Ravens’ descent into the NFL basement been more glaring and dramatic than in their inability to hold onto the football or take it away from opponents.
The offense’s fumbles and interceptions keep piling up like dirty laundry while a once-dominant defense is no longer as intimidating or as capable of making the ball their property.
Just a year ago, the Ravens were the kings of the turnover game as they ranked atop the league with a plus-17 ratio.
Now, the Ravens (4-7) are the worst in the league in turnover margin with a minus-11 mark as they prepare to host the undefeated New England Patriots (11-0) on Monday night at M&T Bank Stadium.
It’s a swing of 28 turnovers in the wrong direction for last year’s AFC North champions, who are in the midst of a five-game losing streak.
"It’s always frustrating as a coach that there’s an issue in, ‘What do I do to help correct this?,’" Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Turnovers, you drill it, you practice it. You have defensive prep guys trying to strip the ball. You have the bag drill with the quarterback and coming in behind and buffering with it to try to strip the ball.
"You do all the attendant drills, and they are focused on it. No one wants to turn the ball over, but it’s frustrating because there’s always something you want to do more. You always want to be able to fix it as a coach. You can’t always except to try to bring the appropriate focus to it and give the players an opportunity to practice not doing it, I guess."
The Ravens lead the NFL with 19 lost fumbles and the offense has stumbled to 25th in total offense.
While facing some of the lowest-ranked defenses in the league, including the Buffalo Bills (31st), Cincinnati Bengals (28th), Cleveland Browns (32nd) and the San Diego Chargers (21st) during the five-game skid, Baltimore has averaged 16.3 points and given up 13 turnovers.
Meanwhile, the defense hasn’t been especially adept at taking the ball away as Baltimore is tied for 27th with five fumble recoveries.
"That’s on us," linebacker Bart Scott said. "You have to do everything you can to take the football away to set your offense up."
Billick outlined how the Ravens practice stripping the ball, but it’s no longer as an effective a practice compared to last year’s team that ranked first in total defense, first in fewest points allowed, first in interceptions with 28 and second overall with 40 takeaways behind the Chicago Bears’ 44.
"We’ve done it before, why aren’t we doing it now?" Billick said. "That’s what you try to attack. But when you’ve done something before, and we’ve done some things well during the course of the season, you know we are capable of doing that. But then there’s the challenge and frustration of, ‘Well, why aren’t we and what can I do to affect that?’
None of which really explains anything.
The Ravens lost All-Pro linebacker Adalius Thomas in free agency as he signed a $35 million contract with New England and have been forced to blitz Scott less as he has taken on some of Thomas’ old pass-coverage responsibilities.
A torn pectoral ended four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Trevor Pryce’s season and cornerbacks Chris McAlister (knee) and Samari Rolle (epilepsy) have missed several starts.
It has been a long, frustrating season following last season’s franchise-record 13-3 campaign and AFC North title.
"On a personal level, thereâ€™s been a number of things this team, internally and externally, have had to face that are far more serious than wins and losses on a football field," Billick said. "It does help you keep a sense of priority, and makes you a little ashamed and embarrassed to give into that frustration, the â€˜poor meâ€™ attitude, when you see some of those things that weâ€™re having to deal with. It does give you that sense of priority.
"We have to give the fans something to cheer and to latch onto. And thatâ€™s what weâ€™re going to be about, and not let the frustration of where weâ€™re at right now weigh us down and the self-pity that goes with it.â€
Now, the Ravens face a Patriots defense that ranks third in the league and in the top 10 at forcing turnovers.
Can the Ravens spoil the Patriots’ perfect season that’s threatening the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ standard of excellence.
"It’s Monday night against the best team in the league right now," Billick said.
"Everybody wants to be the team that knocks off New England.
"That’s a worthy goal. It will be a great opportunity for us in front of fans to show we’re better than what we’ve shown."
NOTES: Running back Willis McGahee issued a statement following the murder of Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor, a fellow former University of Miami star.
â€œSean was a great player, but more importantly a special person," McGahee said. "When a senseless tragedy like happens close to home, it really makes you think about the people in your life.
"This is much bigger than football; life is precious and you are reminded of that every day. I know he is in a better place, and my prayers are with his family.â€
The Patriots activated wide receiver Troy Brown from the physically unable to perform list, placed linebacker Rosevelt Colvin on injured reserve with a foot injury, signed linebacker Chad Brown and cut rookie defensive lineman Kareem Brown.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.