The Ravens' defense was as thin as the air surrounding Denver's Mile High Stadium yesterday. It began the game without four starters and with a new defensive scheme, and left confused after surrendering 548 yards of total offense and six touchdowns.

In case one has missed the last three weeks of Ravens football, the replay was on display before 70,453 yesterday in the Denver Broncos' 45-34 victory.

On a day when quarterback Vinny Testaverde completed 27 of 45 passes for 338 yards and four touchdowns against a defense ranked No. 1 in the AFC and No. 3 in the league, the Ravens' defense turned in another dud.

Broncos quarterback John Elway, who completed 25 of 39 passes for 326 yards, ended the marathon shootout with a 9-yard touchdown run with 1 minute, 16 seconds remaining.

"Coming into the game, the odds were against us, tremendously against us," said Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda. "But we hung in there and had the opportunity to win the game. This team is getting better every week. We keep hoping we're not that far away. We need a few more players."

But it's unclear whether the Ravens (2-5) will bring in any defensive help. They played without starting defensive linemen Dan Footman (fractured forearm) and Rob Burnett (knee), who are both out for the season, and starting safety Eric Turner (ankle) and linebacker Mike Caldwell (knee).

But the Ravens played with basically the same secondary that has been toasted all season. Ravens owner Art Modell said that injuries played a big part in the team's lackluster defensive effort yesterday, and that the switch from the 4-3 defense to a 3-4 may have caused some confusion.

Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis offered no excuses. The Ravens can play a wide tackle six, a gap eight, a seven diamond or any other scheme, but the game is won by making big plays, Lewis said.

"I'm not going to use injuries [as an excuse]; we haven't played well the last four weeks," said Lewis. "It doesn't matter what we played today, we still have to cover people. We've got to grow up. A maturation process has to take place. We have no way to change people."

That's one point on which Modell and Lewis agree.

"There is nobody out there worth a dime," Modell said when asked about signing any free agents. "We're not going out on the street just to bring somebody in for the sake of change who is unfamiliar with our system.

"We had 40 percent of our starting defense out because of injuries, and I think we still played well even though it was in a losing cause. When we get our players back, I think we'll be fine."

The Ravens have to decide which defense to use now. Because they had only five healthy linemen on the roster, they went to a 3-4 this week.

Next week?

"Let St. Louis think about it," said Marchibroda of next week's opponent.

The Rams probably won't be shaking in fear. The Broncos (6-1) had seven players who had receptions yesterday, and the Ravens never found a way to stop receiver Ed McCaffrey (seven receptions, 76 yards) or tight end Shannon Sharpe (nine, 161).

After Sharpe wandered numerous times through the middle of the Ravens' defense, defenders seldom tried to jam him at the line of scrimmage.

"We have the talent on this team, but there were some times we didn't get coverage on him, and other times he made plays," said Ravens safety Stevon Moore.

McCaffrey did just as much damage with three touchdowns. After Testaverde threw to wide receiver Michael Jackson in the left corner of the end zone to give the Ravens a 34-31 lead with 28 seconds left in the third quarter, it was McCaffrey who finished a 10-play, 57-yard drive on the ensuing possession with a 6-yard touchdown pass on a fade pattern to give the Broncos a 38-34 lead with 10: 57 left.

The Ravens might see McCaffrey running the fade in their sleep. He scored on the same route of 4 yards on the game's first possession, then tortured rookie cornerback DeRon Jenkins on a fake fade route, only to run a slant-in and score on a 8-yard pass from Elway to put the Broncos ahead 28-13 at the half.

And, oh, Elway he was another problem, throwing for three touchdowns.

Then there was running back Terrell Davis, who set a single-game team record of 194 yards rushing on 28 carries, including a nifty touchdown run in the first quarter.

He took a handoff to his right at his own 29, then cut back across the field 6 yards later on his way to a 71-yard touchdown run that put the Broncos ahead 14-0.

The Ravens lined up in the wrong alignment for the play.

"We had about three or four bad alignments," said Moore. "For the most part, we were in our proper positions. You know, over the years we were known as a defensive team. Now it's the offense that's keeping us in the game."

The Ravens are missing a great opportunity because Testaverde is on a roll.

The Ravens racked up 392 yards of total offense despite beginning the game without starting offensive tackle Tony Jones (ankle and knee) and losing starting guard Jonathan Ogden (sprained knee) midway through the second quarter and center Steve Everitt (shoulder sprain) with 9: 37 left in the game.

Testaverde had touchdown passes of 11, 25 and 9 yards in the third quarter. And if Everitt hadn't got hurt, resulting in a sack of Testaverde to stop a drive at the Broncos' 39 midway through the fourth quarter, the Ravens might have pulled it out.

"I'm not concerned about statistics, the problem is putting one in the win column," said Testaverde.

Ravens guard Wally Williams admitted frustration has set in.

"There is no such thing as a perfect game," said Williams. "I'm not going to say anything to our defense, because we're all pros and we know there is no such thing as a perfect game. xTC Everybody knows what they have to improve on.

"But I admit it's very frustrating to put up those kind of numbers and lose."

All because the opposition is putting up bigger numbers.

"We could have scored 70 points today," said Sharpe, "but they kept the ball away from us in the third quarter."