Ravens know a return to defensive dominance is essential to their playoff hopes

The numbers don’t look so bad for the Ravens defense, in context.

Twenty-four points allowed to the New Orleans Saints? Drew Brees and Co. have averaged 42 in three games since. Twenty-three surrendered to Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers? They put up 52 four days later.

Just don’t try peddling that message to the Ravens.They take little consolation from ranking second in the NFL in fewest points and yards allowed.

“We don’t like losing, period,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “I don’t really think that it makes us sleep easier because we know that the next team lost as well. We’re trying to beat everybody.”

For six weeks, the Baltimore defense appeared to be the most dominant in a league ruled by offense. An 11-sack shutout in Tennessee read like an early valedictory statement.

But three consecutive losses shattered this illusion of control. Opposing offenses shifted to quick-strike passes and creative run formations that ate up yardage and perhaps more importantly, the game clock. The Ravens were suddenly vulnerable on third down. They stopped forcing turnovers almost entirely.

After two weeks of rest and regrouping, they know they must do better over the next seven games if they hope to restore the season’s early promise.

Headlines this week have focused on the team’s uncertainty at quarterback. But great defenses have carried sputtering offenses before in this town. And the Ravens aspire to play great defense when they take the field Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.

“Defensively, honestly, we’re trying to strive to be the best in the league,” safety Eric Weddle said.

The next two games should provide them a tasty opportunity to get well. The Bengals have struggled in recent weeks and are likely to play without their top offensive weapon in wide receiver A.J. Green. A week later, the Oakland Raiders — arguably the most dysfunctional team in the league — will come to town.

It’s a testament to how well the Ravens played early in the season that opponents have adjusted their attacks so comprehensively. Roethlisberger, for example, hardly looked downfield in the Steelers’ 23-16 victory over the Ravens in Week 9.

He did not post a huge statistical line, completing 28 of 47 passes and averaging a meager 5.7 yards per attempt, but he neutralized the pass rush and kept the Baltimore defense on the field with all those dump offs and quick slants over the middle. The Steelers controlled the ball for almost 13 more minutes than the Ravens and thus, controlled the game.

Ravens defensive backs offered a simple answer when asked how they’ll counter the barrage of quick throws.

“The key is tight coverage,” second-year cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “You have to get your hands on the receivers. Quarterbacks have been really getting the ball out quickly lately — ever since we had that big sack game. So, the key is just to try to get your hands on these receivers, know what your assignment is and just be ready. You always have to be ready, especially the way quarterbacks have been. Whether it’s quick or fast, we’ll have to be ready.”

They know Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is likely to try the same strategy on Sunday. He picked on slot cornerback Tavon Young to great effect in Cincinnati’s 34-23 victory in Week 2.

“I think statistically, I think he’s second, as far as getting rid of the ball,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said. “So, we need to be physical with the receivers at the line of scrimmage, and I think we’re … I know we’re in the top five for sure, maybe second, with batted balls. We’ve had some success in the past with knocking some of the balls that he’s thrown up in the air and we’ve come down with them. We just haven’t come down with them yet this year.”

On the bright side, the Ravens have Humphrey, Carr and Jimmy Smith healthy again. They saw the benefit in the Steelers game as Smith played far better in a reduced role than he had taking almost every snap when Humphrey was out with a thigh injury.

Asked if all three cornerbacks are better players when they’re able to rotate, Humphrey said: “I think so. I know Jimmy and ‘B. Carr’ are both great players. As a corner, sometimes what you see from the sideline, you can see what the offense is trying to do — from the sideline perspective instead of being out there on the field. We kind of come back from the sidelines, whoever isn’t out there, and I’ll usually come up to Jimmy or ‘B. Carr’ and be like, ‘How are they? What are they trying to do?’ Then, whoever is in, we just feed off of what we’ve all been thinking and seeing from the sideline.”

Weddle pointed directly to third down when asked what must improve.

“Third down and the red zone,” he said. “It’s been trick plays, it’s been penalties and communication. Those three areas have hurt over the last three weeks. It’s some simple things, and it’s the way teams are attacking us, which we’ve looked at and have got a better idea. The coaches have prepared us for those, so I think that’s going to sure up.”

The Ravens still rank fourth in the league in third-down defense, holding opponents to a 35.2-percent conversion rate. But that number has risen to 52 percent during their losing streak, and the Steelers converted 10 of 16.

The Ravens’ turnover drought, meanwhile, has reached epidemic proportions. They led the league in takeaways with 34 last year, but they have just one in the last three games. They last intercepted a pass in Week 5 against the Cleveland Browns.

It’s hard to explain given that they’re playing with almost the same defensive personnel. But statistical analysts have long argued turnovers are more random than coaches, fans and players like to think.

“We’ve had sacks, but we haven’t really had those big plays,” Humphrey said. “I think the thing … I don’t think really much needs to change. I think a lot of them are coming soon. We’re a good defense. I think we all play fast, and turnovers come in bunches.

Beyond opponents’ adjustments, third-down performance and the lack of takeaways, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said his team simply needed the bye week to come when it did. He believes rest will help his defense regain speed and crispness.

Of the team’s defensive mainstays, only safeties Tony Jefferson and Anthony Levine have been limited by injuries in practice this week, and they were both on the field Friday.

“People forget, we’ve been here since July 15,” Weddle said. “It’s been a long, long, long run, so we all needed to get away. Being in the situation that we’re in, we hadn’t played very well. We played good at times, but we played some really good teams and didn’t play good enough to win.”

childs.walker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ChildsWalker

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
41°