Amid a blur of confusion and botched tackles, the Ravens' defense was exposed late in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.
The timing and nature of the breakdowns that led to two touchdowns in the final minutes of the Ravens' 29-26 victory raised enough concern that the defense's vulnerability remains a major point of emphasis heading into Monday night's game against the Detroit Lions.
Although the Ravens have climbed to ninth in total defense after finishing 17th overall last season, they've fallen to 21st in fourth-quarter scoring defense. The Ravens, giving up an average of 6.9 points per game in the fourth quarter this year, finished sixth (4.7 points per game) a season ago.
"I'm concerned about it," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "Finishing on defense has been our biggest issue. That's something we have to be better at. I think we're a very good, sound defense assignment- and technique-wise throughout the course of the game and the course of the season. In those situations, we haven't been as good as we have the rest of the time. That's something we've got to clean up. To me, that's not a hard fix."
The Ravens' inability to close out opponents defensively nearly cost them against the Vikings. In a 42-second span Sunday, backup Minnesota running back Toby Gerhart bulled through safeties James Ihedigbo and Matt Elam for a 41-yard touchdown run, and wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson scored on a 79-yard touchdown as Elam fell to the ground tracking down a screen pass.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees attributed the problems to mental mistakes, and several players said it was not a sign of physical or mental fatigue.
"The biggest problem we've had on fourth quarter is really just some mental mistakes late in the game when the pressure is on and they're going no-huddle. Everything gets hurried up," Pees said. "Sometimes our communication hasn't been as good as it should be, passing it all the way along.
"We've got to make sure that everybody gets the call and everybody knows the call and that we're ready and getting lined up. We've had a couple of situations that guys weren't on the same page, and you end up giving up a play late in the game."
Sunday wasn't the first time this season the Ravens' defense had an untimely breakdown.
During an overtime loss to the Chicago Bears last month, cornerback Lardarius Webb allowed a long pass to tight end Martellus Bennett that set up the game-winning field goal.
In an October loss to the Green Bay Packers, Elam gave up a 52-yard completion late in the fourth quarter to tight end Jermichael Finley that helped preserve the Packers' lead.
The Ravens couldn't stop Cleveland Browns quarterback Jason Campbell from scrambling out of the pocket to convert a key fourth-down pass during the fourth quarter of a Nov. 3 road loss. And an overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals the next week was preceded by a Hail Mary touchdown pass to A.J. Green at the end of regulation.
"It's 60 minutes of football, and we've got to find a way to finish games in a more complementary fashion," defensive end Chris Canty said. "Obviously, when the offense scores points at the end of games, we'd like to take the field at the end of games and close it out. We haven't been able to do that of late.
"We've got to figure out a way to get that done. We've got to look at why we haven't been executing in the final minutes of ballgames. We've got to get it fixed."
The Ravens rank 21st in second-half points allowed, allowing an average of 11.3 points after halftime. That's an improvement from last season, when the defense finished 25th in second-half scoring defense (9.7 points per game).
The Ravens rank eighth overall in scoring defense (20.1 points per game). However, their fourth-quarter struggles have emerged as a pivotal issue as the Ravens prepare for a second-ranked Lions offense headlined by quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
"We've got a tough test this week with Calvin playing great ball and a gunslinger like Stafford making some great throws," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "We've got to communicate better. Guys have to focus a little bit more, so we don't have missed assignments."
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The Ravens already have given up 90 fourth-quarter points with three games remaining, after allowing only 82 points in the fourth quarter all of last season.
"It's huge," middle linebacker Daryl Smith said. "As a defense, you just want to go and end it. I'm pretty sure we'll be in this situation at some point again this year."
It's somewhat perplexing as to why the Ravens' defense hasn't performed better in clutch moments. Key sacks, interceptions and pass deflections seemingly have become rare commodities in the fourth quarter.
As the Ravens (7-6) continue to try to hold onto the sixth and final AFC playoff spot, they're aware of how it is important they reverse that trend.
"You don't want to play phenomenally the whole game, and then it comes down to one or two drives, and the play is not there," said rush linebacker Terrell Suggs, who's been held without a sack for five straight games. "I think it's definitely just embracing the moment and sticking together as a unit."