BALTIMORE — There was plenty of talk in the locker room about the Ravens being 5-1 after their scary 31-29 win over the Dallas Cowboys that came down to a 51-yard miss from kicker Dan Bailey with two seconds remaining.
They survived and even improved their footing atop the AFC North after losses by the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 6. However, safety Bernard Pollard wasn’t in the mood to sugarcoat a defensive performance that included a franchise-record 227 rushing yards allowed, the second straight week the Baltimore defense had allowed more than 200 yards on the ground.
Dallas scored 29 points, gained 481 yards of offense, and held the ball for over 40 minutes while the Ravens offense received few opportunities in just 49 total plays to the Cowboys’ 79.
“I’m the one who’s going to give it to you straight; we have to get better,” said safety Bernard Pollard, who was quick to point out several mistakes he made during the 31-29 win over the Dallas Cowboys. “Our team is very talented, our defense is very talented, but missed assignments and missed tackles are putting us in the position where it’s a dogfight every game. We’ll draw on that, but we have to get better.”
Even uglier than the stats was the plethora of injuries suffered by Dean Pees’ defense, headlined by a potential ACL injury to the left knee of cornerback Lardarius Webb. The fourth-year defensive back tore the ACL in his right knee in the final month of the 2009 season and has been the Ravens’ top cornerback over the last two seasons. The mood in the locker room suggested a gloomy prognosis for the remainder of Webb’s 2012 season.
Inside linebacker Ray Lewis suffered a triceps injury, which might sideline him for an extended period depending on the results of an MRI Sunday night. The Ravens fear it could be torn, which would keep the defense’s spiritual leader out for multiple weeks.
Cornerback Jimmy Smith (leg), nose tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu (knee), and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (sprained MCL) also missed time during Sunday’s win.
Blessed with good fortune from a health standpoint through the first five weeks of the season, the Ravens were viewing this coming week as the potential light at the end of the tunnel for their defensive struggles with linebacker Terrell Suggs eligible to begin playing after being placed on the physically unable to perform list to start the season.
The Ravens somehow survived down the stretch as Graham and second-year defensive back Chykie Brown filled in for Webb and Smith after the reserves received little time in practice at those spots. Both will obviously be asked to do more defensively moving forward, but the reality of a secondary without Webb is one that will surely keep the Baltimore coaching staff awake on Sunday night.
“There’s a lot that goes into this thing, there’s a lot of moving parts,” coach John Harbaugh said. “For our coaches to get the guys coached up on the run, just to get 11 guys on the field is a challenge at times. They were in different personnel groupings and different packages, so our coaches did a great job, and our players did a great job.”
It was difficult to gauge the full effect of Webb’s loss as Dallas — ranked 29th in the league with 67.8 rushing yards per game entering Sunday — relied on the running game to move the ball at will against the Ravens defense for most the afternoon, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. While starting running back DeMarco Murray and backup Felix Jones are household names, even reserve backs Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar were able to gain ground against the Ravens’ front seven.
The Ravens entered Week 6 ranked 20th in run defense and had appeared to sure up their ability to stop the run prior to their trip to Kansas City last week before allowing Jamaal Charles to rush for 125 yards in the first half. Now, the defense knows it has a target on its back after failing to slow a rushing attack for the second straight week.
“I don’t like it. I think it’s disgusting,” Ngata said. “We need to fix it right away, because we have a good Houston team that we’re going to play against next week. We’ve just got to find out what we need to do and fix those things. Hopefully, we can get better as the weeks go along.”
The potential losses of Webb and Lewis spell bad news for a defense looking ahead to the return of Suggs to aid a pedestrian pass rush through the first six weeks of the season. And while those defensive losses won’t necessarily doom a team that already enjoys a two-game lead in its division, it will put more pressure on quarterback Joe Flacco and the offense to lead the Ravens to victories.
The Ravens will now rely on Smith to play more extensively in the base defense and ask special-teams standout Corey Graham to play in the nickel package. Webb’s ability to play the run and blitz from the nickel position will also be major blows to the defense.
Lewis would be replaced by reserve Dannell Ellerbe, but the emotional loss of the 37-year-old linebacker being out isn’t one to completely dismiss.
The Ravens will simply say it’s time for the next players in line to emerge in the injured’s place, but every unit has its breaking point. And it’s tough to imagine the Ravens not being dangerously close to that position.
Even if they are 5-1 and sitting pretty in the AFC North.
“It’s difficult, but we can’t allow [injuries] to stop us,” cornerback Cary Williams said. “We have to continue to get better each and every week. We have to step up to the challenge, and we’re going to be challenged. The schedule doesn’t get any easier.”
And the Ravens are fortunate to have given themselves a margin for error.