The secondary may become a primary concern for the Ravens.
For the second consecutive week, what was unfolding as a convincing victory turned into a seat-gripping thriller as the Ravens held off the Arizona Cardinals, 26-23, at M&T; Bank Stadium yesterday.
And much like last week's 20-13 win against the New York Jets, it was the Ravens' secondary that appeared to unravel in the fourth quarter.
"It got pretty hairy, as you all can see, out there," said cornerback Corey Ivy, who made his first start since Dec. 11, 2005, replacing Samari Rolle (undisclosed illness).
The Ravens' secondary has been stout through the first three quarters of its past two games, limiting the Jets to 59 passing yards and the Cardinals to 152.
But whether fatigue, communication breakdowns or missed tackles is a factor, the unit's consistency has slipped in the final quarter. After the Jets passed for 176 yards in the fourth quarter last week, the Cardinals had 151 yards through the air in the final period yesterday.
Perhaps the absence of Rolle, who missed practice Thursday and Friday, played a role, but Ivy seemed to play well in Rolle's absence, registering five tackles, a sack, two deflected passes and a strip and fumble recovery of wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in the third quarter.
But with Ivy playing one corner position opposite Chris McAlister, second-year cornerback Ronnie Prude became the nickel back, and Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner and wide receiver Anquan Boldin (14 catches, 181 yards) targeted Prude on the second of their two touchdown hookups and on several other plays.
"They found their mismatch, and every game has one," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "You're talking about a young guy in Ronnie Prude who's on the uprise. But at the same time, you're putting him against a great receiver in this league in Anquan Boldin. Then you've got a guy like Kurt Warner who knows the business of the game.
"Ronnie Prude made some great plays on Anquan Boldin to get him off the field, to get him down like that. But sooner or later, greatness is going to override youth, and that's what kind of happened on a couple of plays, and Kurt Warner knew that."
Prude didn't disagree with his defensive captain's assessment, saying, "I'm going to put it on myself. I think some of the stuff I did, I didn't handle it technique-wise. They came out and made adjustments, and they made plays."
Warner seemed to spark the Arizona offense, which moved in fits and spurts with Matt Leinart at the helm. With Warner in at quarterback, the Cardinals frequently employed a no-huddle offense to prevent the Ravens from running different defensive packages and sending in fresh bodies.
"When we got into the no-huddle, we were able to force their hand a little bit," said Warner, who completed 15 of 20 passes for 258 yards and had a passer rating of 150.0. "They weren't able to do all their blitzes to set everything up [because] we were hitting them quick. So we got them on their heels, and that's the way I think you have to be successful against this kind of defense."
Entering yesterday's game ranked fourth in yards allowed, the Ravens' defense will likely see its 16th-ranked pass defense slip a few notches. And Sunday the Ravens will take on the Cleveland Browns, whose pass offense was ranked eighth in the league before yesterday.
But to McAlister, the most important statistic is the final one: a win.
"It's not something that we like to do every week, but as long as we walk away with the victory, in the end, that's all that matters," he said.