OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Taking a quick glance at the statistics, you’d assume someone flipped the defensive numbers when comparing the Ravens with the New England Patriots through the first two weeks of the season.
Possessing a potent offense but their defense always considered an Achilles heel, the Patriots are reaping the benefits of the second-ranked unit in the NFL in yards allowed and have surrendered only 33 points in their first two contests (fourth-best in the league). Meanwhile, it’s the defensive-minded Ravens who have struggled to stop opponents, ranking 27th overall in total defense (404 yards allowed per game) after surrendered 486 yards to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.
Of course, two weeks of football is hardly a sufficient sample size — the Ravens also rank sixth in fewest points allowed and fourth in turnover ratio at plus-4 — and inside linebacker Ray Lewis reminded everyone of that Wednesday.
“We always say, ‘Find us at the end of the year,’ and you know what we’re going to be,” Lewis said. “That’s all adjustment. That’s all adding this person, adding that person, fixing this, fixing that, this person goes down, that person goes down.”
Lewis is right that the Ravens are still adjusting to life without the likes of Terrell Suggs, Jarret Johnson, and Cory Redding, but the arrival of the New England Patriots on Sunday night doesn’t bode well for a defense struggling to pressure the quarterback and cover wide receivers and tight ends in the secondary. The Patriots rank sixth in total yards (388.5 per game) and tied for 12th in points scored (26.0 per contest), and quarterback Tom Brady is notorious for picking apart a secondary if you’re unable to make him uncomfortable in the pocket.
Though the combination of outside linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Albert McClellan did a commendable job setting the edge against the run last weekend, the Ravens have found very little ability overall to get to the quarterback without using the blitz. Baltimore ranks 20th against the run (129 yards allowed per game) and tied for 26th against the pass (275 yards per contest) through its first two games.
“I think as a defensive line we’ve got to get more pressure as just the four-man rush,” said defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who leads the team with two sacks. “I don’t think we are getting enough pressure to help our back end as much and also stopping the run maybe for no gains, or one or two yards, instead of three or four yards that’s helping them out for second or third down. If we can get those things fixed, I will feel better about our play. But, right now I think we’ve got some things we have to improve.”
The Ravens will benefit from the absence of tight end Aaron Hernandez, who is expected to miss the next month after suffering a sprained ankle in the Patriots’ loss to Arizona, but All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski will still be in the lineup as the Ravens try to put the memory of their struggles against Philadelphia tight end Brent Celek behind them.
It won’t be easy as Gronkowski already has 12 catches for 135 yards and two touchdowns this season after the 6-foot-6 tight end caught 17 touchdowns last season. To help make up for the loss of Hernandez, the Patriots signed veteran tight end Kellen Winslow and brought back veteran wide receiver Deion Branch to add two more targets to their passing game.
Considering their communication issues in zone coverage between linebackers and defensive backs, the Ravens are more concerned with playing their own assignments than worrying about who’s lining up at tight end. They know that Brady can make them pay if they’re not on top of their game.
“It doesn’t matter who’s lined up at tight end,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “If you have No. 12 at quarterback, he’ll make them all look good.”
Brady said all the right things in his conference call with the Baltimore media Wednesday, not buying into the talk that the Ravens defense has slipped and saying he still believes it’s the best he’s faced. His 77.9 quarterback rating in four regular-season games against Baltimore is his second-lowest mark against the 31 NFL teams, with only Carolina (68.7 quarterback rating in three games) having more success against the future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Of course, those games came with Suggs tormenting Brady from the rush linebacker position, a spot that’s now manned by the less-imposing McClellan.
The Ravens acknowledge they’re still an unfinished product defensively, but you have to wonder if the sum of the parts will equal success against the Patriots, who own a 6-0 all-time record against Baltimore in the regular season.
“There are always adjustments that every team has to make, just like us — we are no different,” Lewis said. “We have to make the same adjustments.”
Lewis speaks with the same conviction about his defense, expressing full confidence that the unit will be among the NFL’s elite when it’s all said and done this season. But to hear him say the Baltimore defense is no different than any other unit sounds strange when you consider the overwhelming success it’s enjoyed over the last decade-plus of football.
The Ravens defense has always been unique; it’s stood out among the rest.
Yes, two weeks isn’t a large enough body of work on which to cast judgment, but their struggles have been exactly what many predicted upon learning about the partially-torn Achilles tendon suffered by Suggs in the spring. Brady and the Patriots will be very unforgiving if the Ravens aren’t able to get consistent pressure and tighten their coverage in the secondary.
“We have a lot of new faces in our front seven,” Ngata said. “We’re just trying to get used to each other. It definitely is a work in progress. Once we continue to gel more, I think we’ll seem more dominant.”
The Ravens hope Ngata is right. Or else, they’ll need to get used to higher point totals from opponents on the scoreboard and finding their name lower in the defensive rankings.
It’s unfamiliar territory, for sure.