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Late lapses by defense should be major concern

The Baltimore Sun

Wait a second, what locker room was this? Sure, the Ravens had just won, but the talk floating from corner to corner didn't seem to match up with the game they had just played, a 26-23 hold-your-breath victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

"It was a great win," coach Brian Billick said. Really? Are you referring to the same game in which the Ravens blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead and needed a last-second field goal to salvage the second win of the young season?

"Feels good to be able to help them out," Kyle Boller said. Huh? Did a Ravens quarterback really just point out that the offense had to bail out its defensive unit?

"[A]s a defense, I think we did what we needed to do to establish the lead and not give it up," linebacker Ray Lewis said. That's interesting because the defense actually did give up the lead - considered a crime in this very locker room not long ago - and allowed the Cardinals to tie the game in the closing minutes.

Please pardon the confusion. No doubt the talk around town this week will focus on the questions surrounding the quarterback position. And while it's great fodder for radio talk shows and Internet message boards, like so many of the Ravens' post-game comments yesterday, I'm not sure that conversation matches up with the Ravens' problems.

The rules haven't changed around M&T; Bank Stadium. No matter who's in the pocket, this team's hopes are still largely tied to the other side of the ball. As the defense goes, so go the Ravens. Normally, that's a comforting thought. The sun comes up. The Roadrunner outruns the Coyote. And the opposing offenses go home crying like grade-schoolers watching Old Yeller.

Given the Ravens' track record, this might sound like utter heresy, but you have to wonder whether this defense remembers that the NFL still uses the quarter system. And as quarters are designed to do, it takes four to make a game.

Yesterday, the Ravens allowed 17 points and 169 yards in the fourth quarter. That's the kind of yardage they used to give up in an entire game, and the 17 points are the most they've allowed in the final quarter in five years.

Not only was this the second straight week the defense invited the opponent back into the game, but through three weeks, the Ravens also have allowed 35 fourth-quarter points. For comparison, last season's team allowed 55 fourth-quarter points the entire season and gave up only three through the first three weeks.

"I'm not going to press the panic button in Week 3," Terrell Suggs said.

No one's suggesting there's any need to panic. But some soul-searching wouldn't hurt.

This is a defense that used to take such pride in closing out opponents. It counted its takeaways and targeted shutouts. Last season, the Ravens outscored their opponents 105-55 in the fourth quarter; through three games this season, they've been outscored 35-16 in the fourth.

Even more troublesome, a year ago the Ravens were the best in the league in the all-important giveaway-takeaway category. It's early this season, but the Ravens have taken the ball away five times and turned it over seven.

"The only thing that really matters is wins and losses," Suggs said. "Doesn't matter how you get it."

Huh? Where's the gusto that's supposed to fuel this defense? The pomp? The bravado? What happened to the swagger?

The answer yesterday was pretty clear: It's tough to swagger when you're moving backward. The Cardinals benched Matt Leinart and replaced him with 36-year-old Kurt Warner, who ran a no-huddle offense and treated the Ravens like a tired dance partner, leading them around the field, spinning the scoreboard and leading on the hearts of Ravens fans everywhere.

Cornerback Corey Ivy said the Cardinals' no-huddle didn't "give us time to get into whatever packages we're trying to get into," which was a bit odd to hear. The hurry-up offense wasn't invented yesterday afternoon on the Arizona sideline. A defense as talent-laden and experienced as the Ravens' shouldn't be caught off-guard by such an adjustment.

"It wasn't that we were unprepared," Suggs said. "We were just surprised by it."

In three weeks, the Ravens' defense has shown us that they're plenty capable of shutting down the run and blitzing from all angles through three quarters. But in the fourth quarter - whether they're preserving a lead or chasing one - they have to remember that they can dictate the game's tone better than any defensive unit in the league. The safe guess is that these first three weeks will prove to be somewhat of an aberration.

"It's not something we like to do every week," cornerback Chris McAlister said, "but as long as we walk away with the victory, that's all that matters."

Which is true. Except most of the time, if you give up 17 points in the fourth quarter, you don't walk away with the win.

The scariest defense in the league struck fear in the hearts of its own fans: If the defense doesn't do better late in the game, the Ravens will be a nonfactor late in the season.


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