OWINGS MILLS, Md. — There was plenty of blame to go around on both sides of the ball in the Ravens’ forgettable 43-23 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night.
Turnovers, penalties, poor pass protection, and the lack of a consistent pass rush all contributed to the humbling defeat, but it was the play in the secondary that conjured memories of the likes of Corey Ivy, David Pittman, Ronnie Prude, Derrick Martin, and the Ravens’ nightmarish Monday night defeat in Pittsburgh in 2007 in which Ben Roethlisberger threw five touchdown passes in the first half of a 38-7 final. It’s no surprise that the absence of top cornerback Jimmy Smith hurt what’s already been a vulnerable secondary in 2014, but allowing six touchdown passes to Roethlisberger and the Steelers signaled a complete collapse in the back end not seen against Pittsburgh in the John Harbaugh era.
The head coach discussed the secondary’s struggles on Monday after defensive coordinator Dean Pees used seven different players at cornerback and safety against Pittsburgh, but they’re finding no answers at the moment as they shuffle options on and off the field. Perhaps the best example of how uncertain the Ravens are with the state of the defensive backfield was the decision to deactivate rookie safety Terrence Brooks against the Steelers after he appeared to be on the verge of securing a starting job in playing 67 percent of the team’s snaps against Atlanta only two weeks ago.
“When some player expresses himself as being the best player by how he plays, he’ll be out there permanently,” said Harbaugh about the secondary rotation. “Until that happens, nobody’s given anything. I think guys have played OK at times, well at other times, and there have been a few bad plays back there.”
Though there have been far more than a few bad plays in the secondary, Harbaugh wasn’t far off in saying the secondary had held up enough when Smith was still in the fold — the Ravens had allowed only seven touchdown passes in their first eight games — even though they’d had their fair share of lapses and had surrendered plenty of yards. But the “bend, but don’t break” philosophy officially shattered at Heinz Field.
Veteran cornerback Lardarius Webb hasn’t been the same — quarterbacks have posted a 105.0 passer rating against him this season, according to Pro Football Focus — since coming back from the back injury that cost him the entire summer and the first few weeks of the regular season. Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown simply aren’t good enough to play meaningful defensive snaps, and the Ravens originally agreed as Franks was on the free-agent market a month ago and Brown was relegated to the inactive list due to his immense struggles that started in training camp.
The play at safety hasn’t been any better as the Ravens now rank 26th in the NFL in pass defense. The Baltimore defense has faced the third-most pass attempts in the league while ranking 22nd in the NFL with only five interceptions. To make matters worse, only one of those picks has been secured by a defensive back — defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and linebacker C.J. Mosley each have two — when Smith intercepted a pass from Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon in Week 6.
Many aspects of Sunday’s game were ugly, but unlike other areas in which the Ravens have players with proven track records where you can expect improvement, there doesn’t appear to be much they can do in the secondary beyond hoping that Smith is ready to return after the Week 11 bye with upcoming games against New Orleans and San Diego. And the disappearance of the pass rush following a sequence in which they sacked Roethlisberger on three straight plays in the second quarter did the pass defense no favors as the game progressed.
It’s become painfully clear that the Ravens need more from their front seven if their secondary is to survive against any formidable passing attacks over the final two months of the season.
“We’re not disciplined back there in technique like we need to be,” said Harbaugh, who spent 2007 as the Philadelphia Eagles defensive backs coach before becoming the head man in Baltimore a year later. “Our eyes aren’t in the right spot all the time like they need to be. When you’re in the back end – just like on the offensive line – your footwork’s got to be right, your eyes have to be right, your leverage has to be right, and then you’ve got to play the ball well.”
There’s only so much coaching you can do when you don’t have the proper talent.
To no surprise, Harbaugh indicated that the Ravens had several busts in coverage as well as plays in which defensive backs were beaten physically. And even when defenders were in position to make a stop, they often misplayed the ball or missed tackles. Particularly at the safety spot where the Ravens used Will Hill, Darian Stewart, Jeromy Miles, and Matt Elam at different times on Sunday night, one could argue the lack of continuity has hurt performance, but the head coach downplayed that being an issue.
Without throwing his secondary under the bus entirely, Harbaugh didn’t shy away from the need for someone — anyone — to start making plays in pass defense. It’s clear the Ravens have plenty of areas to improve following their humbling loss to the Steelers, but you wonder if the secondary is something that they’re going to be able to fix this year.
“We’re looking for the right combination, but I think that’s a little overrated,” Harbaugh said. “I think it’s the best players. If you want to play in that secondary, step up in practice and play well and step up in the game and makes plays and be in the right spot. That’s what we’re looking for guys to do.”
The Ravens can keep looking, but it’s becoming more and more apparent that they’re not going to like what they see.