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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After revamping their front seven in an offseason filled with changes on both sides of the ball, the Ravens expected their run defense to be one of their biggest strengths in 2013.
With veterans such as Chris Canty, Daryl Smith, and Marcus Spears joining a nucleus that already included Pro Bowl mainstays Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, the Ravens were all but assured to improve substantially from a year ago when they fielded the league’s 20th-ranked run defense and gave up 122.8 yards per game on the ground. All appeared to be going to plan early in the season as Baltimore entered its Week 4 meeting with the Buffalo Bills ranked fourth against the run.
Instead, an unexpected loss to the Bills on Sept. 29 started a disturbing trend as the Ravens have now allowed 140 or more yards on the ground in three of their last four games. That stretch continued in humbling fashion this past Sunday as the Steelers’ running game — ranked 31st out of 32 teams entering Week 7 — bullied the Ravens to the tune of 141 yards on 29 carries in a 19-16 defeat to their AFC North rivals.
“They did some new things that we haven’t seen from them,” Suggs said. “Not just this year, but ever. Pittsburgh has never come out and run the Wildcat on us. They’ve never come out with extra linemen. You just have to be able to adjust on the fly. They were able to get some runs off of that early on.”
Entering their bye week with the NFL’s 16th-ranked rush defense at 104.3 yards given up per game, the Ravens have been slow to adjust to the opponents’ running game on more than one occasion this year. In preparing for the Bills, the Ravens spent extensive time focusing on the read-option attack that had been used by quarterback EJ Manuel before Buffalo used more of a conventional approach in gaining 203 yards on 55 carries with 116 coming in the first half. Instructed to use patience in letting the play come to them when facing the read option, the Ravens were instead on their heels as Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller had huge days on the ground for the Bills.
By the time defensive coordinator Dean Pees made the necessary adjustments at halftime, the Ravens were already behind on a day in which quarterback Joe Flacco threw a career-worst five interceptions and the Bills were able to use a conservative ground approach in the second half.
Against the Steelers, the Ravens couldn’t have been expecting such a run-heavy approach, but Pittsburgh used gadget plays as well as a steady diet of rookie Le’Veon Bell to exploit the aggressive tendencies of the front seven. It wasn’t a matter of being unable to shed blocks but a failure to play individual assignments and to read blocks longer in protecting cutbacks, according to Pees.
Other times, the defensive line was simply controlled at the line of scrimmage by a Pittsburgh line that included three backup starters due to injuries.
“The first run of the game, we got the guy stuffed in the hole, and then we just kind of jump off a block a little too quick,” Pees said. “We’re a little too impatient, and [Le’Veon] Bell is a patient runner, and he ended up cutting it all the way back on us right into a blitz. And everything was good until we just jumped off the block, and then he found the crease. That happened to us about three or four times during the course of the game that we got off blocks actually too quick.”
The 141 rushing yards surrendered against Pittsburgh followed the 140 given up the previous week in a home loss to the Green Bay Packers, who sport the league’s sixth-ranked rushing attack. Unlike the Steelers who were able to consistently grind out yards to extend drives, the Packers collected a sizable portion of their production on just a few runs when rookie Eddie Lacy ran for 47 yards on the first two plays of the game and then collected another 17-yard run in the fourth quarter.
Aside from the Steelers’ final march to kick the game-winning field goal on Sunday, no drive was more painful than the 13-play, 70-yard sequence that resulted in a 28-yard field goal and took over eight minutes off the clock in the third quarter. The Steelers gained 41 yards on the ground during that possession alone as their running game was a major factor in controlling the clock and limiting Baltimore to just seven possessions over the entire game.
“[The Pittsburgh game] wasn’t as much big plays as just as kind of bleeding us,” Pees said. “Six, seven, eight yards, which really created a second problem, and that’s third down, which we’ve been very good at. But I’ve said it before: It’s hard to be good on third down when it’s third-and-one and third-and-two.”
The defense has been far from the Ravens’ biggest problem in a disappointing 3-4 start, but Sunday marked the second straight week in which failing to stop the run was a major contributor in the opponent’s ability to put together a long drive in the second half. Against the Packers, the Ravens surrendered 36 rushing yards on a 72-yard fourth-quarter drive that lasted 7:35 and gave Green Bay a nine-point lead with just over four minutes to go. The Ravens would quickly score a touchdown to pull within two but would not get the ball back as the Packers then ran out the clock.
With an offense that’s largely struggled to simply move the ball consistently let alone score touchdowns instead of field goals, limiting its total number of possessions is a recipe for failure more often than not. And a run defense failing to meet high expectations is another reason why the Ravens have lost three of four to fall below the .500 mark for the first time this late in a season in the John Harbaugh era.
No matter what the reason in a given week, the leaky run defense is just one of several issues plaguing the Ravens as they approach the midway point of the season.
“The yardage is the same, which is not good, which we’ve got to get corrected,” Pees said. “If we’re going to be a good defense, we can’t let anybody run the ball on us.”