The problems exist all over the field for a Ravens defense stewing during its bye week.
Ranked 26th in total yards allowed and tied for 17th in points surrendered, the Ravens no longer face questions of whether they can regain their long-enjoyed status as one of the elite defenses in the NFL. Truthfully, just improving enough to be a middle-of-the-pack unit would be a welcome change after allowing more than 180 rushing yards in each of the last three games and surrendering 43 points in Sunday’s loss to the Texans, the most allowed by the Ravens since 2007.
Frustrated fans are calling for wholesale changes, seeking new signings, trades, or even a new defensive coordinator. The Ravens aren’t pulling the plug on Dean Pees, who has had to adapt to significant personnel losses in his first year in the position, and the likelihood of bringing in any new players to make a significant impact is remote at this point in the season.
To improve upon a defense on pace to be one of the worst seen in Baltimore since the franchise’s inception in 1996, Ravens coaches and players alike will need to look from within for the answers.
“Personnel-wise, there’s not a whole lot you can do, really,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I like our players. Our players are most definitely good enough to get the job done, and we’ll just continue to improve there. Does that mean young guys? We’re going to keep developing the young guys, and as those guys emerge, sure, they are going to get an opportunity.”
The blame for the struggles belongs to everyone invested, but the root of the Ravens’ biggest problems — the poor run defense and inability to sustain a consistent pass rush — starts up front where the Baltimore defense has been thoroughly controlled at the line of scrimmage. And that’s where Harbaugh’s suggestion of relying on young players grows more unsettling.
Aside from All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who is now struggling with nagging knee and shoulder injuries, the Ravens haven’t seen any of their other defensive linemen emerge to fill the void left behind by veterans who’ve departed in recent years. Terrence Cody, Pernell McPhee, and Arthur Jones have made little impact after being entrusted to assume bigger roles this season. Paul Kruger and Courtney Upshaw weren’t able to consistently get after the quarterback in the absence of five-time Pro Bowl pass-rusher Terrell Suggs. And a returning Ma’ake Kemoeatu has faded after a strong preseason to supplant Cody as the starting nose tackle.
Those shortcomings have led to the Baltimore defensive line being dominated at the line of scrimmage, failing to maintain gap control and allowing offensive linemen to get to the second level to block linebackers. The front four hasn’t made life difficult for opposing quarterbacks, who have then been able to pick on struggling cornerbacks.
The linebackers and secondary haven’t played well either, but their best chance for improvement starts with the defensive line, whose play impacts every level of the defense.
“[It's] a work in progress. We’re not where we’ve been in the past, obviously,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve been a dominant run front. We’ve been able to play the run with seven in the box and pretty much dominate the run. We’re not there right now. So, that’s what we’ve got to work towards.”
Figuring out how to fix it is the biggest problem as Pees has already employed a rotation of defensive linemen, with none making a consistent impact other than a healthy Ngata.
Cody has regressed so significantly since a strong start last season that he’d taken only roughly 30 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this season prior to Sunday when Kemoeatu was inactive due to a knee injury. The 2010 second-round pick has made only 12 tackles after collecting 34 in 2011 and doesn’t command the double teams you’d like to see to free up inside linebackers to make plays. Neither he nor Kemoeatu have handled the nose tackle position with any level of consistent effectiveness.
The combination of McPhee and Jones hasn’t made anyone forget about veteran defensive end Cory Redding, who left in free agency in the offseason. Emerging as the steal of the 2011 draft for the Ravens with six sacks during his rookie season, McPhee added weight to become a three-down defensive end and has dealt with the effects of arthroscopic knee surgery in the spring. Lacking the explosiveness he displayed as a rookie, he has only 16 tackles and 1/2 sack and saw his playing time drastically reduced on Sunday, taking part in only 20 percent of the defensive snaps after playing in roughly 70 percent of the defensive plays through the first six weeks of the season.