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Mike Preston: Ravens have the old, familiar problems on defense

The Ravens appear to be headed to the playoffs, but it looks like their season will end like recent ones.

Despite signing key free agents during the offseason to improve their pass coverage and drafting several rookies to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the Ravens still struggle in both areas.

On Saturday they had trouble stopping the Indianapolis Colts. Yes, those Colts, the ones with the No. 31-ranked offense. The team that had allowed more sacks than any other in the NFL and averaged just 184.6 passing yards per game.

If the Ravens can’t shut down the Colts, then how are they going to contain Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger or New England’s Tom Brady? Those two have forced the Ravens out of the postseason in previous encounters and it’s a good bet it will happen again.

It was just two weeks ago that Roethlisberger torched the Ravens secondary for 506 passing yards and led them to a fourth-quarter, come-from-behind victory. But that’s Roethlisberger. When he gets hot the Steelers are virtually unstoppable.

But we’re talking about Indianapolis quarterback Jacoby Brissett now. He completed 16 of 33 passes for 215 yards. He didn’t remind anyone of Colts regular starter Andrew Luck, but some of his receivers were running wide open across the middle. T.Y. Hilton had six catches for 100 yards, including a long of 24 yards.

Tight end Jack Doyle had five catches for 41 and if Brissett had not underthrown him on a pass over the middle in the third quarter he’d still be running. Tight ends have whipped up on the Ravens this season, and it’s been that way for the past two years.

Jacksonville’s Mercedes Lewis had a good day against the Ravens and so did Tennessee’s Delanie Walker and Minnesota’s Kyle Rudolph. Pittsburgh’s Jesse James had 10 catches for 92 yards in the second Pittsburgh game.

Can you imagine what New England’s Rob Gronkowski or Kansas City’s Travis Kelce will do against this team in the playoffs?

“It’s something we have to figure out,” Harbaugh said of the tight end problem. “Jack Doyle, he has plays against everybody, it looks like. There is a theme week in and week out and we have to find a way to get that stopped.”

Maybe the Ravens could start chucking or jamming the tight ends at the line of scrimmage instead of letting them run free. Oops, they apparently don’t practice that. But if the Ravens can’t get pressure on the quarterback they might as well start harassing the tight ends off the line.

That’s another problem.

When the Ravens played good teams like Minnesota, Jacksonville and Pittsburgh they didn’t get pressure on the quarterbacks. On Saturday they had a hard time getting in the face of Brissett. The Ravens had just two sacks and most of the time Brissett had time to throw.

That wasn’t supposed to happen this season. The Ravens pass rushers, other than outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, are relatively young — Za’Darius Smith, Matthew Judon, Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams. Smith is in his third season, Judon is in his second and Bowser and Williams are rookies.

But this was a makeshift Colts offensive line. The Ravens should have been dancing and mugging for the cameras all day after sacks.

“We didn’t play our best game,” Harbaugh said. “We’re trying to find a way to play our best game.”

The linebackers can be cut some slack because of their inexperience, but there are no excuses for the secondary. The Ravens should be able to cover the middle of the field. That’s why they signed safety Eric Weddle two years ago and fellow safety Tony Jefferson during the offseason.

Regardless of how much some things have changed, the Ravens remain the same. The offense has improved throughout the season and the running game will keep them in a lot of games, including ones against Kansas City and Pittsburgh, which have soft defenses.

But the Ravens don’t have enough big-play ability to match firepower with Kansas City, Pittsburgh or New England. General manager Ozzie Newsome spent the entire season trying to improve two major areas of his defense.

But it hasn’t been improved enough to get the Ravens where they want to go. Not yet anyway. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this before.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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