A little more playing time exposes Ravens' defensive problems

Ravens battle injuries in 37-30 preseason win against Cowboys

ARLINGTON, Texas

A lot of the Ravens' defensive problems were hidden a week ago because the starting unit played very little.

But the group got its first extensive action of the season against the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday night in its 37-30 preseason win, and the Ravens have some areas of concern.

The Ravens said X-rays on cornerback Jimmy Smith's chest were negative, even though Smith was throwing up on the sideline after breaking up a pass attempt with 11 minutes, 41 seconds left in the first quarter. But the Ravens' problems go beyond Smith and an injury-plagued secondary.

Why does Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs continue to allow yards on running plays off the edge? Why can't the Ravens get pressure on the quarterback with their defensive linemen? Where is that big-thumper presence at inside linebacker? Can the Ravens find another quality cornerback this late into the preseason?

This could be the eye-opening moment of the preseason for the Ravens. A few days ago, they wrapped up nearly a weeklong practice with San Francisco, and the 49ers had a lot of offensive success. But those were the 49ers, one of the NFL's top teams.

On Saturday night, these were the Cowboys, whose quarterback, Tony Romo, was starting his first game since back surgery last December. The Ravens started the game off well, with outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw picking up a fumble off a botched handoff between Romo and running back DeMarco Murray and returning it 30 yards for a touchdown on the game's opening offensive series.

That was basically the highlight for the starting defense.

The Ravens were already without starting cornerback Lardarius Webb, who has missed extensive time this preseason with a back injury. Once Smith left the game in the first quarter, the Ravens kept getting beat.

Romo threw a 31-yard touchdown pass down the right sideline to Dez Bryant, who beat backup cornerback Dominique Franks. Even worse, the unit also gave up passing plays of 22 yards and 21 yards before Dallas pulled Romo, who completed four of five passes for 80 yards.

Cowboys wide receiver Terrance Williams also had beaten cornerback Chykie Brown on a deep route with 3:33 left in the first quarter, but Brown was able to knock down the ball because backup quarterback Brandon Weeden underthrew Williams.

It's fair to say the Ravens would have played better on the back end with Webb and Smith, but Smith hasn't been completely healthy for two years. The Ravens were also without reserve cornerback Asa Jackson, who is out with an ankle injury.

But that's another problem. Both Webb and Jackson play better inside than they do outside, so the Ravens need to find another outside corner. Plus, the team's starting safeties, Matt Elam and Darian Stewart, haven't been that impressive in the preseason.

If the Ravens had another cornerback to complement Smith, it would ease concern about the lack of pressure they get on an opposing quarterback from their defensive line. Instead, the Ravens will have to be creative and blitz more often. But when that happens, it leaves cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage.

On defense, the Ravens have been basically vanilla in the preseason, and they'll have more exotic packages once the regular season starts.

But what do they do about other problems? Teams have been running directly at Suggs since the middle of last season. Maybe the Ravens might platoon him more, giving him less of a role on possible running situations.

When you watch the Ravens' inside linebackers, they are quick and run extremely well, but they haven't had much of a presence. The Ravens get penetration with linemen Brandon Williams, Haloti Ngata and Timmy Jernigan, but there isn't a playmaker from that second line of defense — not yet, anyway.

It will be interesting to see what the Ravens do to fill some holes this week. If a team is going to make a trade, it usually happens within the next week, because it allows the player time to get acquainted with his new team.

But don't get fooled by Saturday night's score. When the first team was on the field, the Ravens struggled in all areas except special teams. During the next couple of weeks, defensive coordinator Dean Pees has to come up with magic to patch a few holes.

They are beginning to show.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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