The black ski cap and sweatshirt veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb wore this week matched the seriousness of his mood and direness of the situation facing the Ravens' beleaguered secondary.
Webb sighed, took a deep breath and spoke passionately about the mentality of a defensive backfield that has been repeatedly overmatched against top quarterbacks. His angst was understandable.
The Ravens pass defense has been historically bad this season, allowing an average of 273.9 yards per game. Ranked 31st in the NFL against the pass, the Ravens are threatening the franchise-record mark they set in the team's inaugural season, when they finished 30th in pass defense and allowed a team-record 248.1 yards per game.
"The mentality is to get better now," Webb said. "We don't have time. We have to go to work. We have to be a stronghold for this team. If we get our stuff together in the back end, then we will be a hell of a defense."
Heading into a road game Sunday against the Miami Dolphins (7-5) with major AFC playoff implications, the Ravens (7-5) have surrendered 3,518 passing yards and 20 touchdowns this season; opposing quarterbacks have a 97.4 passer rating against them. The Ravens are on pace to give up 4,382 passing yards for the season, which would shatter the team record of 3,969 passing yards allowed in 1996.
And now the secondary no longer has the benefit of playing behind Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, a disruptive interior force who has two interceptions this year. Ngata was suspended for the final four games of the regular season Thursday for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy.
The Ravens' secondary troubles can be traced largely to injuries, particularly top cornerback Jimmy Smith's season-ending Lisfranc injury. Webb's explosiveness and flexibility, meanwhile, have been affected by a lingering lower-back injury he suffered the second day of training camp. And the Ravens haven't adequately replaced nickel back Corey Graham since he signed a four-year, $16.3 million contract with the Buffalo Bills in March.
During Sunday's 34-33 loss to the San Diego Chargers, quarterback Philip Rivers picked apart the Ravens secondary, finishing with 383 passing yards and three touchdowns. They were helpless to stop him from engineering a game-winning, 80-yard scoring drive in the final minutes.
"Who do the Ravens have in that secondary that you really have to worry about making a play now that Jimmy Smith is out for the year? Really, there's nobody that I see," said former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, now an ESPN NFL analyst. "It's a bunch of guys where you really can just look down the field, if you have enough time, and find plenty of people open. They're just playing way off the receivers, letting them catch passes and trying to tackle them in the open field.
"That's not how you win a lot of football games and make it to the playoffs, because good quarterbacks will just bleed you to death the way Rivers did it. They're in a tough situation because they have a lot of the other pieces you need to win a lot of games."
Over the past two games, the Ravens have given up a total of 803 passing yards and six touchdown passes to Rivers and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. They have two interceptions during that span, including free safety Will Hill's momentum-changing pick-six in New Orleans. Through a dozen games, the secondary has just three of the Ravens' eight interceptions.
"We're determined to get it right," nickel back Danny Gorrer said.
Even more frustrating for the secondary is its inability to continue the Ravens' long tradition of strong secondary play established by past standouts such as Ed Reed, Chris McAlister and Rod Woodson.
"It's totally unacceptable for us to be 31st in pass defense, especially with the tradition that's been going on here," said starting cornerback Anthony Levine, a converted safety. "We all wear the same uniform as guys like Ed Reed, so this is totally unacceptable."
It's been an especially tough season for Webb, a frequent target for opposing quarterbacks.
Ranked 106th among cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus, Webb has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 39 of 54 passes thrown in his direction (72.7 percent) for 535 yards, two touchdowns and a 115.8 passer rating. Webb simply hasn't been his old stalwart self this season. The instincts are still there, but his body hasn't cooperated.
"There have been a lot of ups and downs," Webb said. "Adversity, you just have to put that stuff behind you. You have to keep fighting, and that's what I've been telling my boys in the back end. My boys are going to be ready to fight."
The Ravens committed nine defensive penalties against the Chargers, including five offside infractions and a pass-interference call on Levine that set up the game-winning touchdown pass.
"We gave up one big play on a coverage, and actually, the other big plays were all based on penalties," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "To me, we shot ourselves in the foot. Rivers is a great quarterback, but really, it wasn't so much about the coverage as we just shot ourselves."
The Ravens secondary is expected to get some reinforcements Sunday. Cornerback Asa Jackson is expected to be activated from injured reserve-designated to return and play extensively against a Miami team whose base offense features a one-back, four-receiver spread formation.
Levine, who has allowed quarterbacks to complete 17 of 23 passes thrown in his direction for 173 yards, two touchdowns and a 124.0 passer rating, could see diminished playing time with Jackson back.
"Asa is a game changer," Webb said. "It's awesome to have him back. Before he went down, he was making plays."
Jackson had 19 tackles and one pass defended in four starts before suffering a severely sprained toe that has improved markedly.
"It's all about getting on the same page," said Jackson, who allowed quarterbacks to complete 22 of 28 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown before getting hurt. "I don't think any one player or person is going to turn it around for us. I think we need to really get back to the basics a little bit and make sure we're communicating and on the same page. I think it's going to pay dividends."
Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill prefers throwing short passes to wide receivers Mike Wallace and Jarvis Landry, and has passed for 2,817 yards, 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions this season. A wide receiver early in his career at Texas A&M, he has rushed for 289 yards and a touchdown, primarily in read-option schemes.