Sports columnist Mike Preston gives his instant analysis of the Ravens' 40-25 loss to the Cleveland Browns at M&T Bank Stadium.
It was perhaps fitting that former Ravens safety and Hall of Famer Ed Reed was at the Under Armour Performance Center on Wednesday, days after one of the worst defensive showings in team history.
The performance — allowing 530 yards to the Cleveland Browns, making it the first time the Ravens have allowed 500 yards in back-to-back games — didn’t resemble historic Ravens defenses from Reed’s tenure (2002 to 2012).
Reed addressed the team at practice, ahead of a critical Week 5 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it’s likely he spoke to players about the need to return to the intimidating style of defense that the franchise has exhibited for more than two decades.
In the wake of the defense’s struggles, the Ravens have made multiple transactions that emphasize their desire to improve a unit that has failed to live up to expectations.
Since Sunday’s 40-25 home loss to the Browns, the team has signed two inside linebackers — L.J. Fort and Josh Bynes — and released edge rusher Tim Williams.
Asked for the reasons behind releasing Williams, a 2017 third-round draft pick, four games into the season, coach John Harbaugh said: “We’re just trying to do what we can do to become as strong as we can be. You’ve got to build your team, your roster, into the roles that you have and that you actually need to go win games.”
Harbaugh said Fort will be “right in the mix on defense and special teams this week,” a clear sign the team is looking for improvement from a young inside linebacker corps that includes Patrick Onwuasor, a full-time starter for the first time, and second-year player Kenny Young.
Bynes, who made the final tackle in Super Bowl XLVII, joins cornerback Jimmy Smith and linebacker Pernell McPhee as the only defensive players on the team from its last Super Bowl run.
“It ties us to that season,” Harbaugh said of the Bynes signing. “It ties us to, a little more with one more guy, to that historic moment when we all came together and made it happen. [That is] something we’re trying to do again, and we’re fully capable of doing it.”
Harbaugh also noted the guidance Bynes can bring to a young defense, while McPhee called him a “true Raven."
“I feel like I can be a leader for this linebacking corps, for this team,” Bynes said. “It means the world to me, playing for this defense. ... Right now it’s not how we start, it’s how we finish the rest of the season.”
Sunday’s loss to the Browns was a culmination of multiple problems with the defense, from a failure to set the edge against the run to an inconsistent pass rush to a lack of execution in zone coverage schemes.
“I don’t think anybody in a Ravens uniform on the defensive side played to a standard that was set a long time ago,” outside linebacker Matthew Judon said Sunday. “We just got to get back to that and get back to the fundamentals.”
Others have echoed similar sentiments, speaking about the lineage of great defenses and playing “Ravens football,” but many of the forebears of that motto are gone.
Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, the franchise leader in games played, and middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, the successor to Hall of Famer Ray Lewis, left in free agency this past offseason.
Other departures, such as free safety Eric Weddle and edge rusher Za’Darius Smith, have not only left spaces to fill in on-field production, but also opened a leadership void.
The team entered the season hoping its younger defensive players would carry on the slogan “Play Like a Raven,” along with veterans such as defensive tackle Brandon Williams, safety Tony Jefferson and newly signed safety Earl Thomas III.
McPhee, four years after leaving the team for a high-priced deal in free agency, was brought back, partly because of the wisdom he would bring to the defense.
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During Steelers week, a rivalry exemplified by a bruising physicality only a few other matchups can equal, the franchise is transitioning to a new era while trying to rediscover the brand of relentless defense that has defined it to this point.
“It shows that the guys that were here, they’re not getting it done,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said of the team’s recent moves. “And for the guys that are still staying here, you’d better get it done or fix something or else you could be with a new team or whatever. So it’s like, ‘Woah, man. That happened kind of quick.’ You didn’t see that coming, so I think it opens everybody’s eyes.”