Ravens defense can't rely just on its reputation

Accustomed to bullying offenses with punishing hits and intimidating words, a traditionally stingy Ravens defense is suddenly vulnerable.

The fear factor seems to have vanished for a unit that has regressed since last season.


Heading into a pivotal game Sunday night against the New England Patriots, the third-ranked defense from last season has plummeted to 27th overall. The Ravens already have allowed 808 yards of total offense, giving up an average of 5.6 yards per play.

"That's horrible, I take offense to where we are after two games," cornerback Cary Williams said. "It's not acceptable to give up that many yards in any facet of the game. I think teams still respect us, but we can't expect to just show up and teams will respect that. We have to strike fear in guys' hearts.


"How we've played, that's not how we play. That's not what we're about here. We have to hit people, fly around and be aggressive. We did that the first week, but second week we just let up. We are considered the bullies. We just have to find that groove and never look back."

The absence of NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs due to a torn right Achilles tendon has created gaping holes in the pass rush and run defense, ranking 20th against the run and 26th against the pass.

Teams haven't been shy about attempting deep passes on the Ravens or grinding out yards on the ground. Running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and LeSean McCoy combined for 172 rushing yards and two touchdowns against the Ravens.

"They're not as intimidating as they used to be," former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann said. "Ray Lewis is a year older, Ed Reed is a year older. Lardarius Webb is playing terrific football, he's stepped up, but 'Sizzle' is the kind of guy you don't replace. He's an elite individual. The defense isn't the same and it's not going to be. They still have the experience and instincts to get the job done, but's its tougher for them now."

Although the Ravens still excel at forcing turnovers with three interceptions and three forced fumbles, this is far below their usual standard.

As far as Reed is concerned, it's time for a call to arms.

"Like I told the guys, we need to tighten up," Reed said. "We need to get better like we plan to. We've given up a lot of yards on the ground and in the air. We've talked about it long enough. It's time for us to play ball and correct the little things that we know we can correct. It's just a matter of transferring it onto the football field."

The task doesn't get easier Sunday against the Patriots. Led by star quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots rank sixth offensively and are coming off a loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

"They look the same to me," Brady said regarding the Ravens' defense. "They're fast, they're tough. They're very instinctive. You don't fool this team very often. The yards you make, you have to earn. They're trying to play physical and intimidate you, and they do it, and they get the ball."

However, the Ravens are a defense in flux.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has made scheme adjustments without Suggs, dialing up more blitzes and stunts. The Ravens are breaking in four new starters: outside linebackers Paul Kruger and Albert McClellan, defensive end Pernell McPhee and nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu.

Gritty veteran outside linebacker Jarret Johnson, arguably the best run defender on the team for years, signed a $19 million contract with the San Diego Chargers in March. And starting defensive end Cory Redding joined former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano with the Indianapolis Colts.


"I think people realize that we don't have Terrell Suggs outside and Jarret Johnson," said Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who leads the Ravens with two sacks. "We have a lot of new faces in our front seven. It definitely is a work in progress. Once we continue to gel more, I think we'll seem more dominant."

A year ago, Baltimore led the AFC with 48 sacks led by Suggs' career-high 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles. This season, the Ravens have six sacks, on pace for the same amount as last season.

Yet manufacturing a pass rush requires more blitzing as linebackers and safeties have a total of 3 1/2 sacks.

"As a defensive line, we've got to get more pressure as just the four-man rush," Ngata said. "I don't think we're getting enough pressure to help our back end as much and also stopping the run for no gains or one or two yards instead of three or four yards. If we can get those things fixed, I will feel better about our play. Right now, I think we've got some things we have to improve."

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick piled up 405 yards of total offense and two touchdowns against Baltimore during a 24-23 win. Vick was only sacked twice, and hit tight end Brent Celek eight times for 157 yards.

"I think scheme only takes you so far," former Washington Redskins safety Matt Bowen said. "You've got to have the players and they don't have Suggs, one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL. Is there one dominant defense anymore?

"Maybe the Texans. Sometimes, we put too much pressure on Pittsburgh and Baltimore to play like the 1985 Bears or the 2000 Ravens. The Ravens are still a good defense."

McPhee disagreed with the notion that the Ravens are no longer terrifying offenses.

"Yeah, we still intimidating," McPhee said. "We just have busts. We have holes in the defense right now. It ain't about what other teams' offenses do, it's about what our defense do. I think we have the best defense in the NFL."

The Ravens have already given up eight plays of 20 or more yards, including a 49-yard DeSean Jackson reception.

"We can't put two performances like that back-to-back," said strong safety Bernard Pollard, who was forced out of the Eagles game with a rib contusion. "We have to be a consistent football team. Any time we get away from playing Ravens' football, we lose. It takes you back to a couple of games last year where we did the same thing."

The Ravens have finished in the top 10 in total defense for nine consecutive seasons, ranking only below the Steelers (12 years) for the longest active streak in the NFL.

And Baltimore leads the NFL since 2000 with 397 turnovers forced and opposing quarterback rating (70.9), ranking in total defense (288.8) and second in points per game (17.0) behind the Steelers during that span.

Middle linebacker Ray Lewis isn't jumping to conclusions, or panicking.

"At the end of the year is when you always pay attention to stats," said Lewis, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "That's why when people talk about our defense, we always say: 'Find us at the end of the year,' and you know what we're going to be. There's always adjustments every team has to make, we are no different."


Recommended on Baltimore Sun