The snapshot of the Ravens' defense last season displays plenty of improvement, regaining stinginess overall as a run defense along with an occasionally formidable pass rush.
However, a deeper look showed a recurring defensive flaw late in games that played a significant role in preventing the Ravens from reaching the playoffs one year after winning the Super Bowl.
There was the long pass to tight end Jermichael Finley allowed by rookie free safety Matt Elam during the fourth quarter of 19-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers.
There was a disappointing loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road marked by breakdowns in the fourth quarter, followed by a defeat where the defense was incapable of stopping Cleveland Browns quarterback Jason Campbell from eluding pursuit to convert clutch first downs in the fourth quarter.
The Ravens nearly squandered a win over the Cincinnati Bengals due to a botched Hail Mary defense on a touchdown pass to A.J. Green at the end of regulation before prevailing in overtime. The following week against the Chicago Bears, there was an overtime loss where a long reception by tight end Martellus Bennett against corner back Lardarius Webb set up the game-winning field goal in overtime.
The Ravens finished the season ranked 30th in fourth-quarter scoring defense, allowing an average of 8.4 points in the fourth quarter to only rank ahead of the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns.
The Ravens allowed a franchise-record 134 points in the fourth quarter, four more than they gave up during the fourth quarter of the 1996 season, and 52 above how many points they surrendered in the fourth quarter during their Super Bowl season the previous year.
The Super Bowl XLVII champion Ravens ranked sixth in fourth-quarter scoring defense, giving up an average of just 4.7 points in the fourth quarter.
"Not having the ability to get off the field cost us maybe three or four ball games this year," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said this week during a state of the team press conference. "I think we recognized that. To improve on that, I think, No. 1, you have to start with the guys you’ve got. We’ve got to get those guys better and put those guys in better position to make plays. On the other side of that, I talked about a free safety maybe getting a free safety that can be a playmaker, when tipped balls are in the air, guys that can come away with that. I think all of those things.
"I think the other thing that we talked about doing this season, in order to be successful, you have to have confidence. I think we’ve got to build a confidence amongst our defensive players that, in those situations, they can make a play and win the game. They don’t have to go out there and play tentative or scared. Go make the play. The other 10 guys have got your back. I think we’ll be able to get to that because it was a new mixture of guys. It was seven new guys on defense, so they had to get the cohesiveness going. You have to get to the point where you feel like you can make that play and get the defense off the field.”
It's hard to say why the defense wore down and were outscored 134-115 in the fourth quarter last season while giving up just 63 points in the first quarter, 89 points in the second quarter and 64 points in the third quarter.
One theory: A lackluster offense that ranked 29th in total offense and 30th in rushing offense didn't keep opposing offenses off the field for long enough to give the defense a breather. The Ravens' opponents built an edge in average time of possession for the season: 30:09 to 29:51.
One day after a 34-17 season-ending loss to the Bengals, Ravens middle linebacker Daryl Smith was still perplexed about why the defense couldn't provide key stops when it had to do so to give the team a chance to win games.
“I wish I knew," said Smith, who led the Ravens in tackles in his first season with the Ravens and contributed five sacks and three interceptions. "If I knew the answers, we would have benched all of that. Just unraveling, I guess, toward the end, and not being able to get off the field, make the play that we need to make or miscommunication. I mean, hey, it was a number of issues that came up over the season, and that hurt us.”
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