Coach John Harbaugh believes he has the right coaches for the Baltimore Ravens. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Ravens Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden is still a fan and watches his favorite team almost every week. He has noticed something painfully familiar about the Ravens, who are celebrating the franchise's 20th season in Baltimore.
This defense looks a lot like the first, woeful group in 1996. The Ravens certainly didn't want to make this a commemorative unit, but it is a great replica.
"Yes, they look a lot like that '96 defense when you think about it, unfortunately," said Ogden, who started at left guard on that team. "You score points and you give up more points. They aren't quite as bad as 1996, but they are close."
The 1996 defense couldn't hold a lead in the second half and twice lost games in which the Ravens scored more than 30 points. The Ravens allowed 130 points in the first five games that year and finished 4-12. This Ravens defense has lost a second half lead in all four of their losses and have surrendered 137 points.
Back then, it was hard to recognize the players because they had just relocated from Cleveland and the Browns/Ravens were having cash flow problems, which hurt them in signing big-name free agents. Instead, they brought in players such as linebackers Mike Croel, Keith Goganious and Jerrol Williams.
The current Ravens have an identity problem, as well.
"They don't have any playmakers on defense," said Ogden of the Ravens, who are ranked 24th in total defense. "Like when Ray Lewis was a young linebacker in 1996, they are just a bunch of guys out there. They don't tackle consistently, they don't pressure the quarterback and they can't get off the field on third down. Except for Jimmy Smith, who are the other corners? The safeties have been nonexistent."
The parallels go over to the offense as well. Back then the Ravens had a tall, strong-armed quarterback named Vinny Testaverde who struggled with ball security.
Sound like Joe Flacco?
Starting running back Earnest Byner was on the downside of his career then, but he still ran hard and could make those jump-stops along the line of scrimmage. But like current running back Justin Forsett, Byner wasn't going to break a long one for a touchdown.
The 1996 group had much better receivers and, like this year's team, had a tough offensive line.
"We had receivers like Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander who could take the top off a defense, these guys don't," said Rob Burnett, who played defensive end for the Ravens from 1996 through 2001. "Unfortunately, we didn't manage the [salary] cap well and that got us into trouble, which is why we couldn't go out and add any big defensive stars for a while."
The 1996 team was also hurt by some key injuries on the defensive line. Burnett tore a knee ligament and played six games. Fellow end Anthony Pleasant suffered a major foot injury during the first game of the season. He managed to play 12 games, but struggled throughout.
Without those two, the Ravens never got consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They don't get much now either, even with blitzes and pressure. Injuries have been part of the problem in this situation, as well.
The Ravens lost their top pass rusher for the season in Game 2 when Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs tore his Achilles tendon. That forced them to move Elvis Dumervil to the weak side full-time, and that's not Dumervil's forte.
Suggs is tall, big, aggressive and used to playing over a left tackle, which is usually the other team's best offensive lineman. Dumervil had been a part-time pass rushing specialist. With his burst, power and leverage, he could beat slower right tackles.
He won't win most matchups on the left side.
The pass rush has also been hurt by the offseason departures of tackle Haloti Ngata and outside linebacker Pernell McPhee. Ngata could stop the run and collapse a pocket, which is essential because the Ravens want pressure from the edges.
But they have no Suggs and no McPhee. Nose tackle Brandon Williams plays the run well, but doesn't pressure the quarterback consistently. Outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw is not a threat at all as a pass rusher.
Regardless of the pressure, this secondary is as poor as the one in 1996. Back then, the Ravens had one solid cornerback in Antonio Langham, who had been a star at Alabama.
Smith is the Ravens' modern version of Langham. If he can get his hands on a receiver, he plays well. If not, it's a long day.
Langham played with a bunch of no-name cornerbacks such as Donny Brady and DeRon Jenkins. Back then, like now, the Ravens had two safeties in Stevon Moore and Eric Turner who were excellent playing the run and coming straight ahead, but didn't cover much ground in pass defense.
That year, the Ravens allowed 248.1 yards passing a game, most in the league. This year, they are allowing 278.2, eighth-most.
Opposing teams have figured out that inside linebacker Daryl Smith can still play, but is a step slower. The Browns, like several other teams, exploited second-year linebacker C.J. Mosley in the passing game by matching him up with tight ends or running backs.
Maybe the Ravens should consider getting Mosely off the field in passing situations, because he is a liability.
Teams have also zeroed in on cornerback Lardarius Webb, who has struggled, especially against double moves. Simply put, the Ravens have trouble matching up with teams who use three-and-four receiver sets because they lack quality cornerbacks.
But it's not just a lack of playmakers that makes this team comparable to that bad defense in 1996. Pees has become too predictable in his playcalling when opposing teams are between the 20- and 10-yard line.
There is also a problem with attitude, according to Burnett.
"I don't see a sense of urgency on defense," he said. "They have youth, but not a lot of leadership. I don't see guys hustling to the ball, guys who don't want to be the last on the pile. They don't have that swagger. This defense has no identity and I don't see a lot of self-policing, which is how players become great."
Unfortunately, this group might not get much better this year.
"Where are they going to get it from? They certainly aren't going to get it from somebody off the street," Ogden said. "You really don't want to give up this early in the year, so maybe they get back into this thing. But things are not looking good right now."