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Defenseless Ravens in unfamiliar territory
OWINGS MILLS, Md. | These are not your father's Baltimore Ravens, at least if your father was a Ravens fan for the past 10 years or so. The club is on a record-setting pace for points. But the defense, the organization's true identity going back beyond the 2000 championship season, is barely keeping up.
The result so far is three straight losses (by a total of 11 points) after three straight wins going into Sunday's game at M&T Bank Stadium against 6-0 Denver.
"It's painful because there's so much pride in the locker room and this city in the defense, and we haven't lived up to it," said cornerback Domonique Foxworth, who joined the Ravens from the Broncos via free agency before the season. "We've played really well in spurts and kind of fallen apart in certain situations."
One of those situations came two weeks ago in the Ravens' last game, a 33-31 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. The Ravens trailed 27-10 early in the fourth quarter before going on a 21-3 run. Then Brett Favre hooked up with Sidney Rice on a 58-yard pass play, leading to Ryan Longwell's decisive field goal. Ravens kicker Steve Hauschka missed a 44-yard attempt as time expired.
It might have been Favre being Favre, but the Ravens' secondary, despite the presence of All-Pro safety Ed Reed, again did not play well. Starting cornerback Fabian Washington was yanked for Frank Walker, and Foxworth had his share of miscues.
Also, Adrian Peterson gained 143 yards on 22 carries for the Vikings. Peterson is second in the league in rushing, but the Ravens always stopped everybody, regardless of reputation. The week before, Cincinnati's Cedric Benson ran for 120. After 39 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, it has happened twice in a row to the Ravens.
Ray Lewis, the All-Pro middle linebacker and defensive leader, was less than impressed by these facts.
"Anybody can make a big deal about anything," he said. "It's the same formula: Come back. Be who you're supposed to be. Make the tackle when you're supposed to make the tackle, and the game takes care of itself."
Not all the tackles are being made. Three teams have gained at least 400 yards against the Ravens. Last year, including three playoff games, no opponent did that. In their three losses this season, the Ravens yielded an average of 383 yards.
Baltimore ranks 19th in total defense - strange territory indeed. The Ravens were second last year, and only once since 1999 has the franchise finished worse than sixth. Even during losing seasons in 2005 and 2007, Baltimore was sixth and fifth. The Ravens took the ball away - Reed is second among active players in career interceptions - and they punished people.
So far this year, not so much.
"We haven't been ourselves," linebacker Jarrett Johnson said.
No one is publicly making excuses or citing the losses of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, now the New York Jets' head coach; linebacker Bart Scott, who went with Ryan; and cornerback Samari Rolle, who was lost for the season after neck surgery and might retire.
"We have the ability to do it," Foxworth said. "We just haven't been consistent."
The Ravens' secondary has yielded six plays of 40 yards or more, equaling last year's total.
"If you can't stop the run, they'll keep running on you," Rolle told the Sun last week. "If you can't stop the blitz, they'll keep blitzing you. With us, it's the deep ball, and until we make some plays, they're going to keep throwing on us."
In the meantime, the offense has become a force. The Ravens are averaging 28.2 points and rank fifth in total offense. Since 1998, they have never finished higher than 14th. And since moving from Cleveland two years earlier, no Ravens team has averaged more than 24.4 points.
The trend started last year, the first not only for coach John Harbaugh but also for offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and quarterback Joe Flacco. After a solid rookie year, Flacco has raised his passer rating to 93.8. Second-year running back Ray Rice has emerged as a dual threat, and tight end Todd Heap is injury-free.
"We felt like if everyone stayed healthy and we all came back with the mentality that we had toward the end of last season, this offense was gonna fly," said receiver Derrick Mason, who briefly retired during the summer. "And it has."
The 5-foot-8, 210-pound Rice leads all NFL players in yards from scrimmage. He's the No. 1 running back in receiving yards and averages 6 yards a carry. Even though he had an outstanding career at Rutgers, Rice fell to the late second round of the 2008 draft because of his size.
"I've been this size nearly my entire life," he said. "Running the football and making plays was something I've been doing my whole life."
Despite the offense's success, the defense is getting most of the attention in Baltimore. Harbaugh said much of the bye week was spent on making adjustments.
"We need to cover better," he said. "We need to pressure better. We need to play better run defense. We need to scheme better."
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