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Are we witnessing the Ravens defense's demise?

Over the past decade, the citizens of Baltimore could count on three certainties: death, taxes and a dominant Ravens defense.

But the Ravens, who have allowed more than 300 passing yards in four of their past five games, are plummeting in many major defensive rankings. The swagger is gone. So is the feeling of impending doom in the huddles of opposing offenses. And on a few occasions this season, fourth-quarter leads have disappeared, too.

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During Thursday's 26-21 loss to the Falcons — a game in which, as safety Ed Reed put it, the Ravens "let them off the hook" — their formerly feared defense again looked decidedly average.

In the first half, the Ravens couldn't get off the field against Matt Ryan, Roddy White and the Falcons offense.

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That wasn't an issue during Atlanta's final drive, though, as it took the defense just 45 seconds to get back to the safety of the sidelines. Of course, allowing the Falcons to cover 80 yards, reclaim the lead and spoil another Joe Flacco comeback probably wasn't what the defense had in mind.

"There's not many times this Ravens team's going to let our fans down and let our city down," said linebacker Terrell Suggs, who played his best game of the season against the Falcons. "We're going to come through more times than not."

Except that in 2010, the defense hasn't.

Thursday was the third time in four games that an opposing offense made the Ravens look like tackling dummies while surrendering a game-tying or winning score in the final two minutes of regulation.

In back-to-back weeks, the Patriots and the Bills erased double-digit fourth-quarter leads. And in the past six games, the Ravens have given up 50 points in the final frame.

Even Michael Gonzalez would balk at the notion that the Ravens defenders have been closers this season.

The Ravens can still drive opponents crazy — we saw that against the Dolphins — but they no longer appear capable of doing it week in and week out.

What is to blame for the defense's decay?

Is it age? Reed and Ray Lewis, two future Hall of Famers, are inching toward Canton. Sports Illustrated's Peter King wrote Friday that Reed, 32, "looks 47" — which is a stretch, if you ask me. Lewis has at times looked like a 35-year-old, while at other times, he's played like he's still the best linebacker on planet Earth.

Is it scheme? Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has been blitzed by fans who feel his defense is too "vanilla." But most pressure packages are pretty plain compared with the exotic flavors that Rex Ryan cooked up in Baltimore.

Or is it skill? In the preseason, critics successfully predicted the secondary would be the Ravens' biggest weakness, and the team's front seven hasn't been shutting down running backs like it did in years past.

Truthfully, it has been a combination of all three, and the Ravens are searching for solutions.
Let's not forget that past reports of the demise of the Ravens defense have turned out to be erroneous. The Ravens finished in the top six in total defense each year since 2003.

A turnaround for this proud defense isn't out of the question. A return to dominance and prominence, however, is by no means a certainty.

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