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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees recollected Thursday that his defense came under fire a year ago for being lousy statistically despite the Ravens’ 6-2 record midway through the 2012 season.
Of course, a 3-5 record this season doesn’t sit well with Pees despite his unit’s overall improvement, but problems still exist on his side of the ball. Ranked 10th overall in total yards and points per game allowed, the Ravens have forced only 10 turnovers — ranked 11th in the AFC — and have struggled to get defensive stops late in games when they’ve been trailing. And with an offense that’s struggled immensely, those defensive shortcomings have contributed to three straight losses.
“More games are lost than won in the National Football League,” defensive end Chris Canty said. “We’ve got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot, stop doing the things that cause you to lose games, and just play solid ball.”
According to Football Outsiders, the Baltimore defense ranks fifth in the NFL in average defensive drive time (2:21), making their late-game struggles even more puzzling. In losses to Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, the Ravens have surrendered a drive of six minutes or longer that’s been pivotal in either allowing the opposition to build on a second-half lead or to prevent the Baltimore offense from having a final opportunity to tie the game or take the lead.
Many have pondered how much the offense’s first-half struggles have tired out the defense, but the final time of possession wasn’t lopsided in any of the three losses with the Ravens having the ball for at least 28:38 in each game. In Week 9, the Browns took possession of the ball with a 21-18 lead and 6:44 remaining in the fourth quarter and remained on the field until kicking a field goal with 14 seconds remaining. On that drive in which the Browns converted a third-and-3 from their own 36 and a fourth-and-1 from the Baltimore 43 with 3:12 remaining, Pees opined that his defense played tentatively instead of aggressively in trying to make a play.
“You’ve got to feel good enough about yourself that you don’t worry about making a mistake,” Pees said. “You guys have heard me tell you the analogy before – and that’s what I told them this week – you practice that way out here and you go 100 miles an hour, because there’s really not a lot on the line. Somehow, mentally, you’ve got to make yourself play it the same way in a game. I know it’s on the line, we all know it’s on the line, but you’ve got to go. And you’ve just got to make a play.”
Regardless of the exact reasons why, the Ravens are frustrated with their growing reputation of being unable to finish defensively after generally playing well over the first three quarters of the game.
And that recent trend, coupled with the offense’s extremely slow starts all season, has led to the Ravens being as close to must-win mode as they can be against the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
“It’s always frustrating. You’ve got to win games,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “They’re on scholarship, too, so to say – the opposing team – and they’re making plays. It’s just one of those things. You’ve just got to get after it and do it.”
Sam Koch is just one of several established veterans experiencing rough seasons as the longtime punter struggled again last Sunday in Cleveland, three times failing to pin the Browns inside the 20 when kicking near midfield.
The worst of the three offenses came on his final opportunity of the day from his own 46 when he produced a 25-yarder that went out of bounds at the Cleveland 29. The shank gave the Browns solid field position that preceded their game-clinching drive that erased all but the final 14 seconds of the game.
“It’s very frustrating,” Koch said of his season. “I put all the time and work and effort into to trying to make that perfect game.”
Koch’s 37.6 yard net punting average ranks 28th in the league and would be his lowest since 2007 (36.0).
“Sam would be the first one to tell you that he’s been inconsistent,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “There have been situations in games where we need a better ball; [the final punt against the Browns] was an example of it. You’ve also seen him in games where he can hit exactly what we want. We put a lot on Sam. We ask him to do things that other punters in this league aren’t asked to do in terms of direction and so forth. He has demonstrated in practice,time and time and time again that he can do all of that. We just need to do that same kind of performance in the game.”