There was plenty to like about the Ravens’ 44-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night, but one area of concern coming from an otherwise dominating performance was the lackluster run defense on display in the season opener.
The Ravens allowed 129 rushing yards on 28 carries as Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis led the way with 91 yards on the ground and a rushing touchdown. It was an uncharacteristic performance in comparison to what you’d expect from a Baltimore defense, but personnel changes have led many to wonder whether the Ravens will continue their tradition of stuffing the run this season.
Defensive end Pernell McPhee struggled to get much of a push at the line of scrimmage while outside linebackers Paul Kruger and Albert McClellan were inconsistent setting the edge as the Bengals consistently gained yardage on the ground to set up short-yardage situations on third down. Fortunately for the defense, the Ravens’ offensive explosion forced the Bengals to abandon the run, and the defense buckled down in the second half.
“It was just little minor technique errors on our part that we can fix, we should fix,” said Harbaugh, who deemed stopping the run as a staple for the Baltimore defense. “[It was] probably guys trying to do more than they actually should try to do and continue to have confidence in the guys around them a little more.”
The Ravens will face an even bigger challenge in stopping the run this Sunday when they take on the Eagles in Philadelphia. In addition to the big-play ability and speed of quarterback Michael Vick, the defense must deal with fourth-year running back LeSean McCoy, who’s already earned the reputation as one of the best backs in the NFL.
Named to his first Pro Bowl last season, McCoy rushed for 1,309 yards and 17 touchdowns and is a dangerous runner when able to get into space. Also a threat out of the backfield, the 2009 second-round pick caught 48 passes for 315 yards and three touchdowns as a receiver.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees must preach discipline to his defense when facing a player with the ability to cut back and make tacklers miss in the open field. Still in the early stages of his pro career, McCoy earned high praise from the elder statesman of the Baltimore defense on Wednesday.
“He is one of those guys that he has a little flavor,” inside linebacker Ray Lewis said. “I don’t want to put him that high up there with [Hall of Fame running back] Barry Sanders, but he has that type of ability to really jump in the hole, jump out of the hole the way you saw many highlights of the many people he made miss time and time again. You really have to cradle him. You have to keep him in the box and make him play football inside those boxes, kind of where he doesn’t want to be.”
That responsibility will fall heavily on the shoulders of Kruger and McClellan, who struggled to make much of an impact in the season opener. The outside linebackers combined for just three total tackles as questions remain whether they can do a sufficient job in place of the departed Jarret Johnson — who is now in San Diego — and the injured Terrell Suggs.
Making their job even more difficult is the nightmarish threat of Vick taking off when plays break down, but anyone who pays close attention to the Eagles will tell you McCoy is the key to making the Eagles offense thrive.
In Philadelphia’s Week 1 win over the Cleveland Browns, he ran for 110 yards and caught six passes for 26 yards.
“He will test the edges,” said Harbaugh, who is reminded of former Eagles running back Brian Westbrook when watching McCoy. “I think our guys out there did a good job this last game, but they are going to get tested like they’ve never been tested before in this game against this back. ‘Shady’ [McCoy], we had fun interviewing him when he was coming out from [the University of Pittsburgh]. He is a great guy. He has a tremendous personality, and I think the flair of his play matches the flair of his personality. He is a home-run hitter.”
Avoiding those home runs and keeping McCoy between the tackles — where he becomes more pedestrian as a runner — will be the ultimate test on Sunday as the Ravens will look to prove that Cincinnati’s success on the ground was more of an aberration than a harbinger of what’s to come this season.
The Ravens have never faced the shifty McCoy as the teams last met in 2008, but it’s clear the 5-foot-11, 208-pound back has their full attention this week.
“He is a complete back,” Lewis said. “[He will be] catching the ball out of the backfield, catching the ball on screens, running inside and outside. Yeah, we have our hands full this week.”