OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens defense would like to consider itself a wounded animal.
Desperate, but still dangerous.
And with an offense that wasn’t particularly good to begin with and hopelessly decimated by injuries, this defense needs to do the heavy lifting if the Ravens are to be relevant in the second half of the season. Of course, that kind of consistent performance hasn’t been there with Baltimore ranking a disappointing 18th in total defense and 13th in points allowed per game.
It’s a far cry from the offseason chatter from fans, media, and even some players suggesting this would be a special defense that could ultimately rival the finest units in franchise history.
“We still can be historic. We still can be magical,” said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who was a member of some of those great defenses of yesteryear. “So, [forget] hype — you know what I’m saying? We know who we are, and we know what we’re about.”
For the better part of two decades, the Ravens have been about stopping the run above anything else, making their 32nd-ranked rush defense entering Week 8 all the more shocking. They’re allowing 145.3 rushing yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry, marks that would easily shatter team records for futility.
A year ago, Baltimore carried the best run defense in the NFL into Week 15 before some late-season struggles dropped the unit to fifth. That defense allowed only four runs of 20 or more yards all season, but this year’s Ravens have already relinquished seven rushes greater than 20 yards, including two in last Sunday’s 24-16 loss to Minnesota. The current group has forfeited 160 or more yards on the ground in four of the last five games after giving up that many in a contest only once in 2016.
No matter how pitiful the other side of the ball has been, it’s an embarrassing development for a franchise that hasn’t finished outside the top 10 in yards per carry allowed since its inaugural season in 1996.
“It’s a yucky taste in our mouth right now,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “All hands are on deck right now. All 11 guys, back end and the front seven, we’re going to iron this thing out. It’s a long season. We’re halfway there, and we’ve got a lot of great football to play still.”
Players and coaches — at least openly — have struggled to pinpoint the root of the problems stopping the run while the pass defense has quietly been a strength after being the Achilles heel of that side of the ball for years.
Most would still point to the four-game absence of standout defensive tackle Brandon Williams as the biggest reason for the struggles of the run defense, but the Ravens gave up 5.6 yards per carry — their second-worst mark of the year — with him returning to action against the Vikings in Week 7. The season-ending injury to 5-technique defensive end Brent Urban hasn’t helped, but he entered 2017 with all of 372 career defensive snaps under his belt and the Ravens had drafted 5-technique players — Bronson Kaufusi and Chris Wormley — in the third round in each of the last two drafts.
Outside linebackers haven’t consistently set the edge, but tackling at every level of the defense has also been suspect. Regarded by many as the defense’s biggest strength entering the season, high-priced safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson have each missed a critical tackle in Baltimore’s last two losses.
Long runs have come against sub packages sporting a lighter front and against the base defense with more bulk at the line of scrimmage.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has echoed the need to stop giving up big plays that are wiping away otherwise-respectable work, but those continue to happen for one reason or another.
“We’re struggling a little bit right now. I think we are pressing a little bit,” Pees said. “We have to get back to just letting it go and playing football and playing defense. I think we’re all pressing — me included — sometimes. That is usually not a good thing.”
If a turnaround is in the cards, you’d think it has to start Thursday against Miami, who owns the league’s last-ranked offense and is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. One could argue backup quarterback Matt Moore gives the Dolphins a better chance to win than Jay Cutler, but head coach Adam Gase will still want to limit his opportunities to make mistakes against a pass defense tied for the league lead with 10 interceptions.
With the Ravens looking completely inept on offense and with little visible hope for marked improvement there, opponents would be foolish to not try to grind out yards on the ground and diminish the chances of turning the ball over. That’s what has made the last few weeks so maddening with Baltimore clearly knowing what the opposing offense is going to do and still not being able to shut down the run.
If this wounded defense is ever going to fight back, facing one of the worst offenses in the NFL at home on a short week seems like the logical time to start.
“You want to be good. You want to dominate everywhere, every facet of the game,” Suggs said. “Now, we’ve just got to tighten the screws a little bit. We just have to stop the leakage. But like I said, we’re not hitting the panic button just yet. We’re going to be alright.”