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Preston: Ravens defense is good, just not great — today's NFL doesn't allow for that

Ever since the 2000 run to the Super Bowl, the Ravens have maintained a tradition of playing great defense, and there has always been a belief around town that the unit might one day again become that kind of dominant force.

But those days appear to be over in Baltimore and for the other 31 NFL fan bases. The Ravens don’t have the personnel to be so superior, and rules favoring offenses have eliminated the likes of feared groups once called “The Doomsday Defense,” “The Purple People Eaters,” “The Steel Curtain” and “The Legion of Boom.”

Nearly a week ago the Ravens seemed to be on the verge of something special with an 11-sack effort against the Tennessee Titans, but now they are trying to regroup after allowing 17 fourth-quarter points in a 24-23 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.

“So we learn from this game. We reload, regroup,” Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr said. “We’ve got a big game coming up next week, and we can’t dwell on this too long. More importantly, we have to learn from it, correct our mistakes, and move forward.”

The Ravens still have the No. 1 defense in the NFL in terms of points (14.4) and yards (280.6) allowed per game, but great defenses don’t allow the Saints to go on 12-play, 75-yard and 12-play, 56-yard touchdown drives in the fourth period or a seven-play, 43-yard possession that ended in a field goal in the same quarter.

Granted, New Orleans has a Hall of Fame-worthy quarterback in Drew Brees, who got hot and made several terrific plays in the second half, but the Ravens don’t have enough playmakers on defense to stymie a player of his caliber.

Rules basically prohibit having enforcers like former Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis from shutting down the short passes over the middle and head-hunters like safety Bernard Pollard, who would knock out receivers working the deep middle of the field.

All fear is gone.

But it’s not just on the back end of the defense, but on the front line as well. There were days when outside linebackers such as the New York Giants’ Lawrence Taylor or the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Kevin Greene used to rough up quarterbacks. And of course, they got in their cheap shots, too.

But that can’t happen anymore. Present-day pass-rushing specialists like the Chicago Bears’ Khalil Mack or Green Bay Packers’ Clay Matthews are drawing penalties for breathing in the vicinity of quarterbacks.

In 2000, the Ravens had two cornerbacks in Chris McAlister and Duane Starks who could play in press coverage and run with receivers downfield, but these days it’s illegal to touch a receiver 5 yards past the line of scrimmage.

The bump-and-run is out. Touch football is in.

Let’s be clear here.

The rules aren’t the only reason the Ravens aren’t dominant. They can beat up on teams like the Buffalo Bills and Titans, but they can’t muscle up and go toe-to-toe with certain teams.

New Orleans wore the Ravens down with its big offensive line and two-running back approach, using Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram as the Saints ran for 134 yards on 39 attempts. The Cincinnati Bengals wore the Ravens down in Game 2.

“We knew it was going to be dirty,” Ingram said. “We knew we were going to have some dirty runs. They have a great front. We just stayed with it. We were able to get that going in the fourth quarter, gash them a couple times. We knew it was going to be a dirty game, and we just kept wearing on them, wearing on them.”

Entering the last eight minutes of the game, the Ravens defensive line was tired. In the secondary, cornerback Jimmy Smith looked like a player who wasn’t in football shape and the Ravens don’t have a hard-hitting, deep-roaming free safety.

The way the game is set up now, it’s hard to slow offenses but nearly impossible to stop the great quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Brees. The Seattle Seahawks had a recent run with great defense from 2012 through 2015, and the Jacksonville Jaguars were strong for a season in 2017.

But it’s hard to maintain consistency, much less greatness. Go ask the Ravens.

They’re good, but not great.

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