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Could the Ravens’ struggling defense really be as bad as — or worse than — the tanking Dolphins’?

To understand just how far the Ravens defense has fallen this season, to grasp the depths of its headlong plummet into the NFL’s basement, start where the Ravens did. Start with the Dolphins.

In Week 1, the Ravens went to Miami Gardens, Florida, and obligingly laid the first stick of dynamite in Miami’s unspoken plan to blow this season to smithereens. Quarterback Lamar Jackson finished with the first perfect passer rating in franchise history, and the defense held the Dolphins to 200 yards of offense in a 59-10 win at Hard Rock Stadium.

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In the three weeks since, the Dolphins have traded away 2018 first-round draft pick and starting safety Minkah Fitzpatrick for draft picks. They have played the New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Chargers, three of the NFL’s nine most efficient offenses, according to Football Outsiders. They have allowed over 34 points per game and not even sniffed victory.

And still the defense of a team in preplanned free fall might not be the NFL’s worst. The defense that was the NFL’s best last season might be a smidge more inferior. Through four games, the Dolphins have allowed 6.99 yards per play, a ghastly total that would set the single-season mark for most in NFL history. The Ravens? 7.03 yards per play. They’ve never surrendered even 6 yards per play over a full season.

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Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said at a relatively subdued news conference Thursday that there might be no better palate cleanser than a rivalry game, and Sunday’s trip to Pittsburgh (1-3) offers that. But he did not dance around the obvious: “We have a lot of things to work on, obviously,” he said. Or else the Steelers will take advantage, too.

“It's a little bit of everything, but it basically comes down to fundamentals, technique, angles to the football and tackling, which every Pop Warner coach says, what every high school coach says, what every college coach says and what every pro coach says,” Martindale said. “Fundamentals, technique, angles to the football and tackling. That's what we've got to get done. Anytime those big runs happen, you hate it. There’s no other way I can explain it. But that's what it comes down to.”

The Ravens (2-2) are doing what they can. In Sunday’s 40-25 loss to the Cleveland Browns, safety Tony Jefferson relayed play calls to the defense for the first time this season, taking over for inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor, and communication “was not a problem,” Martindale said.

But tackling was, so Ravens defensive backs practiced their form against blocking sleds early in practice Wednesday. Outside linebacker Tim Williams hadn’t produced, so he was released Tuesday. Inside linebacker play has been disappointing, so the Ravens signed veterans Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort this week. Cornerback Tavon Young suffered a season-ending neck injury in training camp, and cornerback Jimmy Smith has missed the past two games with a knee sprain, so the secondary has turned to backups Maurice Canady, Anthony Averett and Cyrus Jones with mixed results.

On both a macro and micro level, the defense has been disastrous. Since Week 2, the Ravens have allowed 460.7 yards per game, by far the most in the NFL, despite facing just one elite offense. Next worst are the Cincinnati Bengals (437.7 yards allowed per game). Only four other defenses have given up more than 400 yards per game in that stretch.

Big plays have been the Ravens’ undoing. Last season, their fourth-ranked run defense allowed six rushing plays of 20 yards or more and none of 40 yards or more. This season, it’s already given up six 20-plus-yard carries and two of 40-plus yards, the most in the NFL. Browns running back Nick Chubb’s 88-yard score Sunday is the longest run allowed in Ravens history.

With gap-plugging defensive tackle Brandon Williams poised to return from a minor knee injury as soon as Sunday, the Ravens’ run defense could return to its early-September form quickly. There are more questions about the back end.

The Ravens have allowed 17 passing plays of 20 yards or more, tied for sixth most in the NFL, and six completions of 40 yards or more, most in the NFL. Their fifth-ranked pass defense finished last season allowing just 44 passes of 20 or more yards and seven of 40-plus-yards. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ second-best passer rating of the season so far came against the Ravens, while the Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray and Browns’ Baker Mayfield both posted season highs in Baltimore.

“Those are big plays. We’ve been there before. We’ve had these moments before,” coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. “Every defense will go through this at some point in time. It’s the National Football League. People scheme you up. People block. People can run. There are fast players out there with the ball in their hands, and you take a couple steps in the wrong direction, or three or four guys … there’s a series of events in a play, and that’s what happens.”

The Ravens need to “fix it all,” as cornerback Brandon Carr said Sunday. “Up front, in the middle, on the back end.” It is telling that the Ravens defender rated the highest at his position by Pro Football Focus is also one of the team’s most criticized: safety Earl Thomas, PFF’s No. 19 safety overall. (Defensive tackle Michael Pierce is the Ravens’ highest-graded defender, but is just the No. 26 interior defender overall.)

The analytics website’s evaluations of other Ravens defenders are eye-opening. Williams is the No. 75 interior defender. Patrick Onwuasor, Kenny Young and Chris Board form maybe the NFL’s lowest-rated group of inside linebackers. Marlon Humprey is the No. 48 cornerback. Jefferson is the No. 75 safety, sixth worst among all qualifying players at the position.

“I think the biggest thing that we’ve come to is just, every man has to play better,” Humphrey said Wednesday. He recalled that when Martindale recently asked the defense, “Who feels like they played good?” no one could raise their hand. “That’s concerning. The biggest thing is, everyone just … You have to all play a little bit better. It’s some little things that we have to get fixed.”

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A trip to Pittsburgh will not be a panacea. It might prove to be a Band-Aid game, though. The Steelers rank ahead of the Browns and Cardinals but are still among the NFL’s bottom half in offensive efficiency. Star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is out for the season with an elbow injury, and their once-reliable running game has stagnated.

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Second-year quarterback Mason Rulolph’s options at Heinz Field could be sparse. Starting wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster missed his second straight practice Thursday after suffering a toe injury Monday against the Cincinnati Bengals, and starting running back James Conner and tight end Vance McDonald also have yet to practice this week.

The Ravens’ path to self-improvement starts in Baltimore. But for now, they can’t afford to be picky with where they get help.

RAVENS@STEELERS

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Ch. 13

Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM

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