OWINGS MILLS – Traditionally stingy, occasionally intimidating and once celebrated as the gold standard in the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens’ defense now finds itself in an unusual position.
The Ravens are still a big, physical, tough defense capable of shutting down running backs and most quarterbacks, but they’re being victimized lately by the fast-break offenses that are in vogue nowadays.
Over the past four games, the Ravens have allowed 1,207 passing yards and eight touchdown passes.
Ranked third in total pass defense heading into an overtime win over the Buffalo Bills where they gave up four touchdown passes and 382 passing yards to unheralded Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Ravens have fallen to 13th overall in pass defense and are 10th in total defense.
Quarterbacks are using the spread formation and no-huddle offense to throw the Ravens off-guard, and are capitalizing on a lack of a consistent pass rush to pick apart a secondary in transition now that free safety Ed Reed is back following offseason hip surgery.
Since being activated from the physically unable to perform list three games ago, Reed has intercepted three passes to lead the team.
The Ravens, though, have been plagued by deep passes and a few communication issues.
And cornerback Fabian Washington lost his starting job after struggling against the Bills and the Miami Dolphins. He was replaced by Josh Wilson.
Accustomed to a defense that once bullied the league, Ravens fans have openly yearned for the old days of blitz-happy defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.
What would Reed say to those bemoaning the Ravens not dominating how they did in the past?
“Some people don’t know anything about football,” Reed said with a laugh. “You can say our defense isn’t this, our defense isn’t that. Look across the league. That’s why I said some people don’t know anything about football.
“Every week is something different. One minute, the defense is not doing this. The next minute, it’s the offense not doing this. We’re still a great defense.”
Over the past month, opposing offenses have grown increasingly eager to go after the Ravens through the air.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw the football 44 times, completing 27 of them for 292 yards.
Fitzpatrick threw the ball 43 times, completing 29 of them for 382 yards as the Bills piled up 514 yards of total offense.
Veteran defensive end Cory Redding emphasized that the Ravens remain a formidable defense.
“No doubt about it, I still feel strongly about my team and my teammates,” Redding said. “We do some good things. Sometimes, we do bad things, but we do more good than bad. We play hard. We still play together and we go out and have fun.
“We go out with a mission to get the ball back in our offense’s hands and get them stopped. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out that way. The guys across from us get paid, too. So, they’re bound to make plays. It ain’t the end of the world. We’ve got three losses. There’s a lot of football left.”
The Ravens limited Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne to 231 yards and no scores on 34 throws.
However, cerebral Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan picked apart the Ravens’ defense in a 26-21 victory last Thursday at the Georgia Dome.
He completed 32 of 50 passes for 316 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
That included Ryan connecting with star wide receiver Roddy White for a 33-yard scoring toss to win the game as White shoved Wilson to the ground with no flag thrown.
Nonetheless, Reed insists that the defense remains a strong unit.
“If they had beaten us 59-28, then we’d have problems,” Reed said.
Of course, that’s the exact margin of defeat for the Washington Redskins from their Monday night loss against Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Oh, I was just throwing some numbers out there,” Reed said. “If we’d have gotten beat 63-0 or something like that, then we’ve got concerns on defense. Score was 21-26. They made a play at the end of the game. You can’t put the call in the referee’s hands. You’ve got to make the play.”
Against the Bills, Patriots and Falcons, the Ravens squandered fourth-quarter leads.
During the Ravens’ first five games, the Ravens didn’t allow anything higher than 17 points.
During the past four games, the Ravens have allowed 23, 34, 10 and 26 points for an average of 23.25 points given up per contest.
Is the defense slipping?
“Damn, tough crowd,” said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who leads the defense with 6 ½ sacks. “You can’t let that bother you because it’s not the end of the season yet. I’m not letting it bother me too much. We’re 6-3. There’s a lot of teams that are trying to be in the position we’re in right now.
“At the end of the year, y’all can make that final assessment. We’ve got seven games left. We’re still in first place in the division, and we’ve still got the potential to do some good things. I think there’s some things we’ve got to work on and get adjusted before we try to make a playoff run or a Super Bowl run. We just need to take care of those concerns ASAP.”
The Ravens allowed the Falcons to convert 12 of 20 third downs, a staggering total that doesn’t include three additional ones converted by Baltimore penalties.
The Falcons picked up nine first downs with passes.
Ryan generated season-highs for completions, passes and yards.
And White finished with 12 receptions for 138 yards and two touchdowns.
However, Ravens coach John Harbaugh is convinced that the cornerbacks are improving.
“Oh yeah, guys are getting better,” he said. “Every week is a different type of challenge. You are going to have weeks where you go through passing yards and no running yards and weeks where you shut everything down. We’re going to try to shut everything down. That goes for the cornerback and everything else.”
Defensively, the Ravens have been resilient whenever the offense has turned the football over.
They have prevented teams from capitalizing on miscues.
“It speaks to the fact that we have a good defense, first of all,” Harbaugh said. “Our guys don’t cave in, ever. We make mistakes. We don’t play things right all the time. We can be a lot better at a lot of things, but that’s a reflection of the heart and character of our guys and their mental toughness.”
As far as the primary issues the Ravens are facing, the defense is 18th in third-down defense as opponents are converting 39.4 percent.
And the Ravens’ pass rush is ranked 21st in the league in sacks per pass play with 16 sacks overall.
Reed attributed some of the issues to technique, scheme and communication.
“It all factors in, but we had some fundamental stuff and technique stuff in the last game that I think we didn’t play well on,” he said. “Communication is getting better, needs to get better. It always needs to improve as the season goes by. It never should lack.
“We thought we matched up well against their receiving corps, really well, but technical stuff on certain plays, just one guy here, one guy there, whether it’s me or anybody else, you’ve got to cover your guy.”
All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis chalked up some of the setbacks for the defense to adjusting to changes in personnel.
“I think there’s definitely been a lot of changing parts,” Lewis said. “I think this defense has the ability to go on and do whatever we want to do once we finally start solidifying these pieces on who’s going to be our starters.”
This week, the defense shouldn’t have any problems during a road game with the Carolina Panthers.
The Panthers (1-8) are expected to start rookie quarterback Tony Pike.
Carolina enters this game with the last-ranked offense (250.6 yards per game) and the last-ranked passing offense (156.8 average).
The Ravens are allowing 5.2 yards per play, 4.0 per rush and 6.64 yards per passing attempt.
“You can’t get caught up in those numbers because some of the teams that are higher than us have way worse records than us,” Lewis said. “It can be kind of misconstrued at times, but we just have to keep playing football.
“We went through the roughest time of our schedule that we were going to go through. Now, it’s time for us to start building on that and stats will come with that if you’re looking for those.”