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The Ravens have the NFL's top defense — unless you look at their past five quarters

On Monday afternoon, 22 hours after the Ravens’ worst result of a half-completed season, John Harbaugh was measured in his assessment of his team’s loss Sunday to the Carolina Panthers. It was not, the coach said, as bad as it felt afterward.

On Wednesday, three days after the Ravens’ top-ranked defense had looked just rank in a 36-21 loss — season highs in points allowed, yards per play and postgame frustrations — safety Eric Weddle was still reliving the blowout loss, like a poker player lamenting his worst beats. Surely it still must have felt a little bad.

“It’s kind of a chain of events,” Weddle said, and he began to relive all the ways in which the game had gone off the rails after a 7-0 start. Start with quarterback Lamar Jackson’s missed third-and-1 throw to a wide-open Willie Snead IV, then the “bogus penalty” on a fake punt. “We still have the ball, and who knows?”

He did not entertain the fantasy for long. There was the tough throw by Cam Newton into “pretty good dang coverage.” The Panthers rushing touchdown in which “a couple of guys didn’t do their job.” A “freak” turnover by running back Alex Collins deep in Ravens territory. Linebacker C.J. Mosley’s would-be interception instead caught for a touchdown by Christian McCaffrey.

“So now you're looking at 21-7, where really, they had one long drive on us where they were backed up and they had the long drive,” Weddle said, referring to the Panthers’ 99-yard second-quarter march. “There were just a couple of plays where those defining plays, we didn't make, and it was guys just not doing their responsibility. So when [Harbaugh] says that, it's true. … It's never as bad as it is, and it's never as good as it is, but we're confident.”

The Ravens’ home matchup Sunday against the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers is “the biggest game of our season right now,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said Wednesday, and for the first time in weeks, there is cause for concern over whether their defense is as good as its billing.

The unit is No. 11 in the NFL in rushing defense and No. 2 in passing defense; only the Dallas Cowboys also rank among the top 11 in both. The Ravens are No. 1 in scoring defense and No. 1 in total defense; the runner-up Jacksonville Jaguars lag by nearly 20 yards allowed per game.

And yet the Ravens’ five past quarters stand out like a dent on a suit of armor: 501 yards and 53 points allowed, three punts and no turnovers forced in 13 total drives (not including the Panthers’ final possession), a combined 5.8 yards per play surrendered. Over the course of this season, only nine defenses have fared worse on a per-play basis.

“If you’re good at a certain thing, you want to continue to be good at it; you can’t take any steps back,” said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has the Ravens’ last sack — early in the fourth quarter of the Week 7 loss to the New Orleans Saints. “Just go back to the drawing board, apply more attention to detail, do the little things and we should be all right.”

But it can be hard to do the little things without the biggest names, and the Ravens enter Sunday’s game at M&T Bank Stadium with a concerning injury list. Starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey moved fluidly during defensive drills Thursday’s practice, but he has missed the past two games with a thigh injury. Starting safety Tony Jefferson (hamstring) did not participate Thursday, and reserve outside linebacker Tim Williams (ankle) sat out the practice, too.

Inside linebacker C.J. Mosley has not practiced this week, either, and Weddle said before Wednesday’s workout that Mosley was “barely able to run out there.” The Ravens are not better without their Pro Bowl linebacker — defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said last week that he’d take him over the Panthers’ Luke Kuechly, widely considered the game’s best at his position — but the struggles of stalwarts like Mosley explain the defense’s recent lapses.

His Pro Football Focus rating Sunday was his worst of the season and the fourth straight game in which in he graded out poorly on the analytics site. He led the team in tackles but also had several misses, two of which led to 10-plus-yard gains for McCaffrey. In coverage, he allowed six of of seven completions, according to PFF, some of which he was responsible for, some no linebacker could have hoped to prevent.

In the Ravens’ 26-14 win over the Steelers in Week 4, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked once and hit twice, but he averaged a measly 5.8 yards per attempt on 47 throws. The Steelers never made it across midfield in the second half, and coach Mike Tomlin on Wednesday rued their ineffectiveness on third down.

The Panthers had no such trouble moving the ball. Of their first 24 first-down plays, they gained at least 5 yards on 11 of them. They ran through and wide of a defensive line missing injured defensive tackle Willie Henry, finishing with 154 yards. They picked on Mosley in the middle of the field and Smith and Jefferson elsewhere. The two defensive backs allowed completions on a combined nine of 10 targets for 114 of Newton's 219 passing yards, according to PFF.

Asked whether he’s fully recovered from the Achilles tendon injury that ended his last season, Smith smiled wryly and said: “Can I answer that after the end of the season?”

The Steelers will not hesitate to ask questions. Roethlisberger has rebounded from his 27-for-47 showing against the Ravens with three straight 65-plus-percent passing days. Running back James Conner, held to 44 total yards in that Week 4 loss, is the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Month. Wide receivers Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster are still headaches to cover.

Even if the Ravens’ loss Sunday wasn’t as bad as it looked, here comes an offense that, when clicking, is as good as it gets.

“We did some things that were uncharacteristic. All of us did,” Martindale said. “There are a lot of teachable moments in that. We’ve turned full attention on to Pittsburgh. We know what this game is all about. Obviously, we just talked about it four weeks ago. And we’re really looking forward to the challenge.”

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