House built on defense shows cracks

CLEVELAND — CLEVELAND-- --The crutch usually does no worse than wobble. Wobbling is the exception, as it seemed to be the previous two weeks before the Ravens came to Cleveland Browns Stadium yesterday. This was different, though.

The Ravens' defense didn't save the day this time. It didn't prop up another sputtering offense or redeem some mistake or overcome some misjudgment. As the offense changed coordinators and receivers and quarterbacks over the years and still ran in place, the defense at worst has bent but not broken.


Yesterday against the Browns, it just plain broke.

It broke for Braylon Edwards on a deja vu 78-yard touchdown play on the Browns' second possession. It broke for Jamal Lewis on a 28-yard turn-back-the-clock burst in the second quarter. It broke twice for Kellen Winslow, in the first quarter on the Browns' long first possession that ended in a touchdown and in the third quarter on a play that set up the Browns' final points. It even broke for Jason Wright, who doesn't get that many touches but made his count.


Touchdowns, third-down conversions, momentum changers, back breakers.

Overall, there was nothing special about the Browns' offense - except on those big plays, when they made the Ravens' defense look like nothing special. Instead of covering up the stench of the offense (and the offense was bad, except the perplexingly scant times Willis McGahee touched the ball), it had to fan away its own foul odor. Two fourth-quarter escapes got them a reprieve, but now the mantra, "We won the game," doesn't fit.

As Ray Lewis said, among other tart observations amid the gloomy visiting locker room: "This league is too shallow for error. Those things will catch up to you every time."

What happened in the fourth quarter the past two weeks against the New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals happened all day yesterday. And that tells you that time has run out on waiting for this defense to return to normal.

"I'm not one to believe that we're 2-2 and we're OK," Bart Scott said. "You can say that all year, and then you look up and you're outside of the playoffs and you say, 'What happened?' You have to have a sense of urgency."

That 2-2 mark, same as the Browns, includes 0-2 on the road against AFC North teams, and the really rough part of the schedule is still a month away. There are the usual urgent problems the Ravens must address. Now, though, the defense is one of them. If the Ravens can't count on it the way they usually do, they're doomed.

There are reasons, not excuses, for this. As easy as it is for observers (and a few quarterbacks) to pick on Samari Rolle, his absence at cornerback has made for a domino effect through the rest of the secondary. On yesterday's bomb, Edwards broke loose on the same side of the field he had a year ago here against Rolle, except that Chris McAlister had shifted to that side in Rolle's place.

What did you see on that play? "Him running by me," McAlister said.


Same effect with Trevor Pryce's absence in the same two games. As deep and versatile as the Ravens' defense is, it's not so deep that it can move some pieces around and make as if it doesn't miss a 13-sack defensive end. Would anyone have guessed this defense would barely lay a finger on (no disrespect intended) Derek Anderson?

Last but not least, 22 of Jamal Lewis' carries netted 36 yards against the team he helped win a Super Bowl ring. That included a 1-yard touchdown he might or might not have scored - we'll never know, because Brian Billick inexplicably got alligator arms with the red challenge flag - and Lewis got hit hard even on that carry.

But that one other carry, the blast from the past that left ex-teammates grasping at air, ankle and turf? That's not supposed to happen to these guys, no matter who's running, how much history he had with the other team and how many fightin' words were issued. It made the vulnerability complete through every level of the defense.

Worst of all, all of the aforementioned big plays led to scores. Big plays only hurt when teams capitalize on them, Scott pointed out, before adding: "We didn't respond to the best of our ability."

Rex Ryan and the coaches keep moving the chess pieces around, out of necessity as well as creativity, but the other team is checkmating too often. Ray Lewis hinted at that when he said, "Sooner or later, you can't trick everybody. ... You line up and beat the man in front of you." That could have been directed at his teammates, coaches or himself - or for the benefit of the cameras. He never got around to elaborating.

But yesterday, for the first time for a whole game this season, the Ravens' defense didn't trick anybody or beat anybody.


And if these Ravens can't count on that crutch, they can't count on much of anything.