When Ed Reed came back to the Ravens defense in late October, he made an immediate impact. Five plays into his first game, he knocked a fumble loose. One play into the second half, he had an interception.
And three games later, the Pro Bowl safety is back to his havoc-inducing tricks — while still trying to smooth up the rough edges of communication and reinforce a battered secondary.
For all of Reed's big-play ability, he hasn't been able to save the Ravens from the big-play strikes of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Chad Henne or Matt Ryan the last three games. Even with Reed, the Ravens' defense has given up an average of 297 passing yards, 16 first downs and 23 points in those games.
Pass defense has reached a critical juncture for the 6-3 Ravens, who launch a two-week journey through the NFC South Sunday when they visit the 1-8 Carolina Panthers. Because the Panthers will start a career, 30-year-old practice squad quarterback in Brian St. Pierre, there is relief in sight.
But the December stretch run beckons, and the Ravens have to find a way to deal with the intermediate zone pass plays and spread formations that have stressed the defense over the past five games. The Buffalo Bills game aside, the Ravens have had better success cutting down on big, over-the-top pass plays than a year ago. But they've also been hurt more on 20- to 30 yard passes than in 2009.
Secondary coach Chuck Pagano said Thursday that because teams generally are unable to run the ball against the Ravens, they resort to max protection schemes and shorter combination pass routes.
"What you see across the league is, you get more first- and second-down play action pass trump plays," Pagano said. "They max protect, keep seven or eight [blockers] in, and you get two or three receiver route combinations. I think that's where those plays are showing up. And certainly, we can do a much better job tightening up the coverage and communication and all those things in the secondary."
Reed missed all training camp after having hip surgery in the spring. Then he spent the first six weeks of the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list. Now, he's trying to round into midseason form with defensive backs that had gotten used to Tom Zbikowski at free safety.
"Communication is getting better, needs to get better," Reed, 32, said. "It always needs to improve as the season goes by. It should never lack."
Then, trying to put last week's 80-yard, 45-second touchdown drive by the Atlanta Falcons in perspective, Reed said what has become painfully obvious over the past month.
"We thought we matched up really well [against Falcons receivers], but technical stuff [broke down] on certain plays -- just one guy here, one guy there. Whether it's me or anybody else, you've got to cover your guy," he said.
Lapses in coverage have cost second-year cornerback Fabian Washington his starting job for now. Second-year cornerback Lardarius Webb has been a target at times, too. And Josh Wilson was victimized, perhaps illegally, by Atlanta's Roddy White for the game-winning touchdown pass.
In addition to the spread and hurry-up formations that have troubled the Ravens, they've also suffered from poor tackling. Some of the big plays they've given up, Pagano said, are 7-yard slants that went for 25 yards because of a missed tackle. With rules designed to take away big hits, cornerbacks have an even tougher job now.
"You turn on the TV and the best of them are getting smoked at some point," Pagano said.
The Bills hit big plays deep down the sidelines and over the middle against the Ravens. The Miami Dolphins threw underneath the coverage with limited success, but Atlanta's Ryan was artful in picking apart the Baltimore secondary all over the field.
"He did a heck of a job, just making the right decisions," said safety Haruki Nakamura. "He's still a young quarterback. We wanted to try to force him into bad decisions and it just seemed like he was making a lot of the right decisions."
Reed has played the deepest of center fields since returning last month, setting up as much as 20 yards from the line of scrimmage. Pagano said he thinks Reed feels more comfortable coming "downhill" to play the ball than going back on it at this point of his recovery. But no one is complaining about Reed's performance.
"He's playing extremely well," Nakamura said. "As a unit, we've still got to put things together. … We're not going to press about it. Are we happy with where we're at right now? No, we want to be the best in the NFL. But at the same time, when Ed came back, we started getting more turnovers. We want to be better, [and] we know the turnovers are coming more and more."
Said Pagano: "Ed having three interceptions in two games is a big lift. [But] any time you miss a significant amount of time and you come off an injury … it's hard to get back into a groove. Even for a veteran player of Ed's caliber. He's a future Hall-of-Famer, and he's still finding his way back into a groove."
In the Ravens' first four games, their pass defense ranked among the league leaders. They gave up 25 first downs passing, 523 total pass yards and just 55 points. In the last five games, they've been tattooed for 76 first downs, 1,527 gross pass yards and 110 points.
In that stretch, they've faced better quarterbacks like Denver's Kyle Orton, New England's Tom Brady and Ryan. Among the quarterbacks they'll face in the last nine games are Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, Houston's Matt Schaub and New Orleans' Drew Brees.
Pagano's solution starts with more consistent coverage and the core elements of the job: "It's communication, it's trusting your fundamentals and techniques, being on the same page, being aggressive and playing fast, being a great tackler back there. And doing that on a consistent basis.
"In the back end, if everybody's on the same page, you've got a fighting chance. The margin for error back there is minute, to say the least. You make one mistake and you know what it can cost you."
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