Preston: Top quarterbacks expose the Ravens' weaknesses, and that'll be a challenge the second half of the season

For nearly half the NFL season the Ravens had this city and its fan base excited again. They had put the long ball back into the offense and aggressiveness into the defense. They were one of the most balanced teams in the league, with a highly ranked offense and defense.

And then reality set in.

Or better put, the Ravens ran into the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers, teams with franchise-caliber quarterbacks Drew Brees and Cam Newton. Those types of players can expose a team’s top weaknesses, and that’s what has happened the past two weeks.

On defense, the Ravens don’t have a dynamic pass rusher, they have trouble covering running backs and tight ends with their linebackers, and they don’t have a legitimate free safety.

Offensively, the Ravens struggle with teams that usually play Cover 2 or take away the long ball from quarterback Joe Flacco.

“We are not going to get too low. The attention to detail increases now,” Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “We have to play better in the red zone, and we have to play better situational football. Therefore, the game doesn’t get so on top of us. We understand the task at hand. Especially with all those home games we got coming, so if we handle our business at home, we will be all right.”

Opponents who have a top quarterback protect them well, and the Ravens have only gotten one sack the past two weeks. Brees and Newton run fast-paced, up-tempo offenses.

Young players such as outside linebackers Tim Williams, Matthew Judon and Za’Darius Smith have improved, but the Ravens still don’t have a premier pass rusher.

And if top quarterbacks are given time, they will chew up a defense. Brees was only 22 of 30 against the Ravens but threw for 212 yards and two touchdowns. He led three fourth-quarter scoring drives and finished with a rating of 114.9.

Newton completed 21 of 29 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns, and he rushed 10 times for 52 yards and another score. In both games the Ravens played without injured starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey, which made it worse on the secondary.

More teams are running patterns behind the shallow drops of the Ravens linebackers and in front of the secondary because they don’t believe safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson can close fast enough.

As for the Ravens offense, it doesn’t play well from behind. The unit needs to get the run game going and mix in play-action passes.

But the Panthers got a lead and wouldn’t let the Ravens complete long passes. The idea for opponents is to make Flacco and the Ravens manufacture scoring drives of 10 plays or more because he isn’t always accurate on short- to mid-range passes.

There is a reason the NFL is considered a quarterback-driven league. It’s not just about the offenses but about the pressures an elite quarterback can bring and how they can change the course of games through many areas.

Just look at the Ravens’ record this season. They beat up on the Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos and Tennessee Titans, all teams without established quarterbacks. They beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger, but that’s a rivalry game and anything can happen in those types of showdowns.

They didn’t beat Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, Newton and Brees. They even lost to the Cleveland Browns’ Baker Mayfield.

Unfortunately they get Roethlisberger again Sunday and three other top quarterbacks during the remainder of the season: the Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan, Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and Los Angeles Chargers’ Philip Rivers.

They also play the Oakland Raiders’ Derek Carr and both Dalton and Mayfield again.

The Ravens’ defensive style of bringing pressure from multiple players is effective against inexperienced quarterbacks. But the likes of Brees and Newton have seen these stunts and pressures before.

If the Ravens could get pressure with their front four, they would have more success against the league’s top quarterbacks.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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