ARLINGTON, Texas — Before they left the visiting locker room at AT&T Stadium late Saturday night, the Ravens defense had reached a consensus in their evaluation of what had transpired over the previous three hours.
The defenders believed that they had done some good things, but they also recognized that their play was nowhere near good enough.
From missed tackles to blown assignments to costly penalties, the Ravens defense exited the 37-30 victory over the Dallas Cowboys with plenty to work on and yet another key injury to their secondary. Starting cornerback Jimmy Smith was knocked out of the game on the first drive with a chest contusion that left him coughing up blood.
While coach John Harbaugh was optimistic that Smith wouldn't be sidelined for an extended period, the cornerback's status was one more thing for team officials to worry about with a banged-up defensive unit that hasn't been especially sharp through the first two preseason games.
"I don't call it struggles. For the most part, we did some good things. It's preseason. You're allowed to make a couple of mistakes. That being said, we're chasing perfection," Ravens strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil said. "We have a couple of more preseason games to get it right before the regular season starts."
In victories over the San Francisco 49ers and the Cowboys, the Ravens defense has forced five turnovers, scored a touchdown, stiffened in short-yardage situations and transitioned several young players into starting roles. But it also has struggled at times to contain outside runs, failed to mount much of a pass rush and missed too many tackles.
Several times, the Ravens had the Cowboys stopped for what should have been modest gains only to watch the offensive player break free from an attempted tackle and pick up big yardage.
"It all falls on tackling and getting guys down," Ravens second-year safety Matt Elam said. "People are going to make plays in this league. You just have to tackle them down before they get to the first-down marker. … Tackling is a big thing for us to emphasize this week. [We] have to get better at that."
That point surely will be hammered home this week by defensive coordinator Dean Pees and his staff, which has plenty of incriminating game film at its disposal.
There was Elam and others failing to corral Dez Bryant, allowing the wide receiver to pick up 22 yards on a second-and-20 on the Cowboys' first drive. There was tight end James Hanna effortlessly bouncing off a shoulder blow by Ravens safety Brynden Trawick on his way into the end zone for a 24-yard score.
Fellow Ravens safety Omar Brown was bulled over by running back Ryan Williams and then prolonged another drive with an unnecessary roughness penalty on third down. Three plays later, Dallas scored a touchdown to make it 34-30.
"We got a little sloppy in the second half with the second defense with the sudden changes," Harbaugh said. "We didn't get them stopped. Our coverage and our tackling wasn't very good, and we had penalties."
The first-team defense hasn't been immune to struggles either. Still, truly evaluating the group has been difficult, given what they've been up against and how much Pees has held back, not wanting to give away too much in the preseason.
San Francisco starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick played just one series and drove his team inside the 10-yard line before the Ravens forced the 49ers to settle for a field goal. In his first game since back surgery last December, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo stayed in for two drives, losing a fumble on one that Courtney Upshaw returned 26 yards for a touchdown and throwing a 31-yard touchdown pass to Bryant on the other.
Bryant caught the ball over veteran cornerback Dominique Franks, who was pressed into early action when Smith went down with the chest injury.
"There were some things we did defensively early in the game that were good … but we have to be better in situational football, sudden change, coming back on the field, being able to get back off the field on third downs. Those are things we have to look at," defensive end Chris Canty said. "We can't have any self-inflicted wounds or penalties that keep drives going or put them in situations where they can be successful. There is definitely a lot for us to learn from this tape."
Harbaugh acknowledged that he kept the defensive starters in longer than he would have liked, and he was pleased with how they handled essentially being on the field for three straight possessions. Because the Ravens scored on defense and special teams, the Cowboys had the ball for more than 13 minutes in the first quarter.
"It was hot out there, and couple of us were tired," rookie weak-side linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "I'm not going to lie to you, that first quarter, I was blown out there. But I'm glad I got the reps in because it will help me the rest of the season. But fatigue can't be a factor, you have to learn how to handle those situations. It's something we need to work on. Once we got our second wind, we started communicating a little better and things got back to normal."
It will be a while, though, until the Ravens defense is closer to full strength.
Defensive ends Brent Urban (knee) and Kapron Lewis-Moore (Achilles) are already out for the season, while nose tackle Terrence Cody (hip) still hasn't practiced. Veteran cornerback Aaron Ross (Achilles) also is out for the year, and it isn't clear if the returns of Lardarius Webb (back) or Asa Jackson (foot/ankle) are imminent.
After Smith went down in the first quarter Saturday, the Ravens had either Chykie Brown, who struggled throughout training camp, or Franks, who was working as a third-team cornerback when the preseason began, guarding Bryant, one of the game's most dangerous receivers. Rookie safety Terrence Brooks also has been asked to occupy the nickel back role.
"Since I've been a rookie here, the thing has been next guy up," Upshaw said. "In my rookie year, [Terrell Suggs] went down, Ray Lewis went down and a bunch of guys had to step up then. It's the same now."
Baltimore Sun columnist Mike Preston contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun