After Ray Lewis retired as a Super Bowl champion and Ed Reed bought two tickets to Houston, the Ravens took full advantage of the opportunity to rebuild a defense that had uncharacteristically crumbled at times.
To casual observers, losing the two future Cantonites meant that the defense would completely fall apart. But those who had been watching this team closely realized that Lewis and Reed were no longer playing anywhere near a Hall-of-Fame level, understandable considering they were in their mid-30s.
Still, when that much experience, heart and institutional knowledge were lost, a rough transition was expected.
I’m not sure that anyone thought it would this rough, though.
In Thursday night’s season opener, the Ravens, who had seven new starters on defense, gave up 49 points to the Denver Broncos, more than any Lewis-led defense had ever allowed, and Lewis had been here from the start. It took a little while for Peyton Manning to get in a groove, but when he did, the secondary was no match for the NFL’s best trio of wide receivers, who all couldn’t be double-teamed.
Pretty much every Ravens defensive back got posterized at one point or another, but no one had a poorer performance than cornerback Corey Graham, who probably had to have someone check under his bed for Wes Welker when he got home.
Graham, whose out-of-nowhere performance last season helped the Ravens survive the loss of top cornerback Lardarius Webb, couldn’t keep up with Welker in the slot. Welker had nine catches for 67 yards and two touchdowns, at least one of which came when Graham was asked to cover him man-to-man. Graham also once got beat for six by Demaryius Thomas.
He won’t be the only one slinking in his chair when secondary coach Teryl Austin reviews the game tape in the coming days. Safeties Michael Huff and James Ihedigbo looked like their predecessors as they both failed to wrap up Broncos tight end Julius Thomas in the open field, and cornerback Jimmy Smith let Andre Caldwell get behind him for a touchdown.
When Manning tossed a screen pass to Thomas late in the fourth quarter and his linemen blocked Thomas a lane to the end zone, he had thrown seven touchdown passes, the most a quarterback had thrown in a game since Richard Nixon’s first year as president.
Manning completed 27 of his 42 throws for 462 yards and those seven record-tying scores. I know it won’t make up for last year’s AFC divisional round loss, but it was as close as he can get.
Still, the talented secondary is much better than it performed Thursday night in the lion’s den at Sports Authority Field. And the pass rush flashed potential in the loss, with Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Chris Canty all sacking Manning. Throw in the fact that the defense allowed 2.8 yards per carry, and there are some silver linings on this dud.
The loss humbled the Ravens defense and probably convinced those casual observers that they need to lure Lewis out of retirement and trade their first-round pick to get Reed back. But the good news is that there is nowhere to go but up, and despite Denver’s 510 yards of total offense, I still think this will become a Ravens defense that those two would proud of.
One thing that I learned
The Ravens really miss Dennis Pitta. But I suppose we already assumed that would be the case. The injured tight end may not have the athleticism of Ed Dickson or the resume of Dallas Clark, but his savvy routes and soft hands were missed in Thursday night’s loss. Clark had seven catches for 87 yards -- much of that was in garbage time, though -- and Dickson had one for 13, but both players had passes clank off their hands in critical situations when the game was tight, including a bad drop by Clark near the goal line late in the second quarter.
Pitta was expected to replace some of Anquan Boldin’s production in the slot and seemed poised to have a big season before he got hurt during the first week of training camp. Now, it is obvious that Joe Flacco is still trying to figure out which guys he can rely on when he attacks the middle of the field. He can’t just dump the ball off to Ray Rice, something he did eight times against the Broncos. Without someone keeping the safeties honest up the seams, the Ravens might not produce as many big plays in the vertical passing game as they did last season. They are holding out hope that Pitta will be able to return to the field eventually, and the shaky performance of his peers Thursday makes you understand why.
Handing out game balls
Can’t say there are many Ravens deserving of consideration in this one, but since I have to hand them out, I’ll give the offensive game ball to Vonta Leach and the defensive game ball to Elvis Dumervil. Leach scored the game’s first touchdown and landed a nice block on Ray Rice’s touchdown. Dumervil got a satisfying sack against his old team in the third quarter.
This week’s head-scratcher
The catch that changed the trajectory of this game wasn’t actually a catch. Early in the third quarter, Welker appeared to make a diving catch on third down, but replays showed the ball hit the ground. The Broncos hurried to the line to run another play, but the coaches in the press box seemed to have enough time to see the replay and radio down to coach John Harbaugh to tell him to challenge the play. He didn’t, and three plays later, the Broncos scored a touchdown to take a four-point lead. After a blocked punt, they quickly made it 11 points and the rout was on. The outcome could have been completely different if Harbaugh had thrown his red flag. It may not have been all his fault, but he’ll have to shoulder the blame for this one.
The stat that stands out
Seven -- touchdown passes for Manning, which tied a career high. It was also the most the Ravens defense has ever given up.
They said it (or tweeted it)
“Anytime you lose like that, it’s a complete embarrassment.” -- cornerback Jimmy Smith to my colleague, Aaron Wilson, after the loss.
Three (thoughts) and out
1. Losing Jacoby Jones really took a toll on the Ravens, and not just because they lost a starting wide-out. They decided to dress four wide receivers against the Broncos, but that number dropped to three -- Torrey Smith, Brandon Stokley and Marlon Brown -- when Brynden Trawick took out Jones on a second-quarter punt return. The Ravens initially responded by using fewer three-wide sets, but once the game started to get out of hand in the third quarter, they were forced to use their 11 personnel almost exclusively even though they only had three active receivers. By my count, the Ravens used three wide receivers on 60 of their 87 plays. Those three guys probably slept soundly on the flight back to Baltimore.
2. The offensive line allowed four sacks, but honestly, that isn’t all that bad considering Jim Caldwell called 66 passing plays, including 15 on their first 21 plays. The bigger concern was run blocking. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce averaged 2.8 yards on 21 combined attempts, proving that concern about the running game’s struggles in the preseason was warranted.
3. I know it’s early, but I think it’s pretty clear that the Broncos will be the team to beat in the AFC again this year. With Manning slinging passes to his talented trios of wide receivers -- seven touchdown passes! -- they humbled a good Ravens team that has the pieces to be a top-10 defense. Once the Broncos get Von Miller and Champ Bailey back, they are going to be real tough to beat. Fellow AFC contenders, you’ve been warned.