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Fourth-quarter defense becomes a focus for Ravens

In the wake of last season's 8-8 finish, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said that "not having the ability to get off the field cost us maybe three or four ballgames."

The defense has spent the preseason trying to tighten up a fourth-quarter defense that allowed opponents to turn what should have been comfortable Ravens wins into close games, small leads into deficits, and losses into blowouts last season.

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"We didn't get off the field on certain situations in two-minute," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "We want the game to end with our offense having the ball, whether it's four minutes and taking a knee or going down and scoring. That's kind of the emphasis we've had in two minutes [during training camp]."

Late-game defense was a problem that was well documented at the end of last season, and a contributing factor to the team's 5-4 record in games decided by three points or fewer, the most such games in the league.

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The Ravens were ranked 12th in overall scoring defense last year (352 points allowed), but the 134 points allowed in the fourth quarter was a team record and the third-most in the NFL, behind the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns.

It wasn't a matter of the defense's not being able to get off the field at any point in the game. Opponents converted third downs at 33.5 percent, the third-lowest by a team's opponent in the league.

But that number climbed to 50 percent (25 of 50) in the fourth quarter, keeping the defense on the field for longer drives and taking the ball out of quarterback Joe Flacco's hands.

In Week 6 against Green Bay, the Packers picked up a pair of first downs inside the two-minute warning to seal a 19-17 win after Flacco pulled the Ravens within two points with a six-play, 90-yard touchdown drive.

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In Week 7, Pittsburgh responded to a late Ravens touchdown drive with a seven-play, 39-yard drive with 1:45 left that set up a 42-yard field goal as time expired, giving the Steelers a 19-16 win.

And with the Ravens down three points with 6:44 left in Week 9 against Cleveland, Jason Campbell led the Browns on a 15-play, 67-yard field-goal drive to run out the clock and give the Browns a 24-18 win.

The late-game problems changed in the second half of the season. The Ravens still had trouble getting off the field but also gave up points in bunches. A defense that allowed just 36 fourth-quarter points through eight games allowed double-digit fourth-quarter points in six of its last eight games.

In a Week 10 overtime win over the Bengals, Cincinnati drove 71 yards on eight plays to draw within a score with just over eight minutes left, and tied the game on a Hail Mary from Andy Dalton to A.J. Green.

Three weeks later, Pittsburgh scored twice on fourth-quarter touchdown drives of 10 and 13 plays, respectively, with a win secured only by a field goal by Justin Tucker between the touchdown drives.

But nowhere else were the fourth-quarter defensive problems more evident than the snow game in Week 14 against Minnesota, when both teams exploded in the fourth quarter and the Vikings scored three touchdowns only to lose on a last-second touchdown pass from Flacco to wide receiver Marlon Brown.

All three were Ravens wins, but they underscored the types of situations a tighter fourth-quarter defense can help them avoid. In six seasons under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 24-23 in one-score games, which is in line with the expected results in those situations across the league.

But members of the defense have taken it upon themselves to get off the field for Gary Kubiak's new offense to win such games, and pointed to the training camp and preseason routines as how they're preparing to do so.

Situational drills are a big part of the Ravens' — and every team's — summer routine, and the practices are structured to have big, full-team situations such as the two-minute drill or fourth quarter occur later in practice, as key to maintaining their focus late in games.

"We'll go for a period of time, and then we'll have a special teams [drills and] we'll go to more, have another break, go," Smith said. "And the way they've structured it, it makes us push, especially, at the end when we have been out here [for] three hours, and we have 20 more minutes left, and then we have a two-minute [drill] or big team period at the end."

Veteran defensive end Chris Canty said that by focusing on individual responsibilities and fundamentals in the preseason, they can become second nature when legs get heavy late in games.

"When you talk about situational football, being successful and executing in situational football comes down to executing base, fundamental techniques," Canty said. "Understanding your assignment, understanding how to execute the technique the coaches are calling for you on a particular call, that's what translates to success for your football team."

"We want to make sure we're paying attention to the details and we finish everything," Canty said. "Those habits, as you build those habits, collectively, those will transfer to success on the field when it comes down to those clutch moments."

jmeoli@baltsun.com


Too close for comfort

The 2013 Ravens were 5-4 in games decided by three points or fewer:

Date

Opponent

Result

Sept. 29

at Buffalo

L, 23-20

Oct. 6

at Miami

W, 26-23

Oct. 13

vs. Green Bay

L, 19-17

Oct. 20

at Pittsburgh

L, 19-16

Nov. 10

vs. Cincinnati

W, 20-17 OT

Nov. 17

at Chicago

L, 23-20 OT

Nov. 28

vs. Pittsburgh

W, 22-20

Dec. 8

vs. Minnesota

W, 29-26

Dec. 16

at Detroit

W, 18-16 

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