No shortage of questions about play, leadership of Ravens defense

September 30, 2019 | Luke Jones

The post-game reaction was what you’d expect after the Ravens defense offered one of the worst home performances in franchise history in the 40-25 loss to Cleveland.

Tony Jefferson called it “disgusting.”

Matthew Judon described the “terrible” showing as unfit for “a standard that was set a long time ago.”

Earl Thomas labeled the day “frustrating as hell” after the Ravens had given up more than 500 yards and 33 points to Kansas City a week earlier.

Similar sentiments were offered throughout the locker room, but a comment made by Michael Pierce resonated for anyone who’s watched the Ravens surrender more than 500 yards and at least 33 points in back-to-back weeks for the first time in team history. The defensive tackle thoughtfully answered difficult questions from the podium outside the locker room, but he was eventually asked who had stepped up as leaders in the midst of a brutal day.

“Everyone knows who our leaders are.”

Do we though?

Do they?

It certainly isn’t Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle, or C.J. Mosley. Their 17 combined Pro Bowls and three decades’ worth of institutional knowledge and football IQ are long gone, and the Ravens miss them. There’s no disputing that anymore.

To be clear, Pierce pointed to Thomas leading by example and Judon being more vocal, but the Ravens defense looked like a rudderless ship Sunday as the Browns punched the unit in the mouth repeatedly without resistance. There were more big plays surrendered, blown coverages and run-gap responsibilities, and some of the worst tackling ever observed from a Baltimore defense. The Ravens defense didn’t play tough or as a team, especially in the second half when the Browns scored 30 points.

Cleveland scored on five straight possessions from the end of the first half to midway through the fourth quarter. After Lamar Jackson’s touchdown pass to Mark Andrews and subsequent two-point conversion to cut the deficit to six with just under 10 minutes to go, the Ravens not only failed to make a stop, but they gave up a Nick Chubb 88-yard touchdown run on the next snap from scrimmage.

On that play, Thomas said he pulled up in an effort to avoid pulling his hamstring. To be clear, the six-time Pro Bowl safety and former Seattle Seahawk wasn’t going to run down the speedy Chubb — perhaps another issue entirely — but that business decision and an NFL Network report of “a heated discussion” between Thomas and Brandon Williams centered around the injured defensive tackle not playing Sunday are poor optics for someone who was signed to play at an elite level and help fill the leadership void.

But this isn’t about one player. The entire Ravens defense was a mess Sunday except for Marlon Humphrey, who was superb against three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. for most of the game. That said, even the third-year corner admitted to being responsible for the busted coverage that led to Baker Mayfield’s 59-yard completion to Ricky Seals-Jones in the third quarter.

Entering Monday, the Ravens ranked 25th in total defense, 20th in scoring defense, and 29th in pass defense. Their 10th-ranked run defense is buoyed only by two still-winless teams not even challenging them on the ground in the first two games as Baltimore now ranks 26th in the NFL in yards per carry allowed (4.9). Point to the absences of Williams and Jimmy Smith as well as the season-ending neck injury to Tavon Young as much as you want, but the Browns defense has managed to not completely fall apart these last two weeks despite most of its starting secondary being out.

It’s unclear to what degree the defensive issues can be fixed during the season. The young inside linebackers have been lost in coverage and undisciplined against the run. The veterans and youngsters at outside linebacker have been too inconsistent setting the edge. After Tyus Bowser’s sack on the game’s opening drive, the Baltimore pass rush didn’t hit Mayfield once the rest of the day. The high-priced safety tandem of Thomas and Jefferson has done little to prevent big play after big play these last three games. And, yes, the Ravens have definitely missed Smith and Young at cornerback.

But even before addressing the many on-field issues, who’s going to lead through this trying time? Which player is telling a dazed and wounded group that everything will be OK — with everyone believing him? If necessary, which veteran can provide a verbal boot to the ass that will be taken the right way?

This isn’t an individual knock on Thomas, Judon, Jefferson, or even second-stint veteran Pernell McPhee. Having untapped leadership qualities isn’t the same as establishing yourself as a leader, which must happen organically. That trust and responsibility can’t be forced, but the defense has undergone its greatest leadership exodus since Lewis and Reed walked out of the building in 2013. The difference then was Suggs and five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata still being there.

If Ray Lewis and Ed Reed had suddenly bolted in 2005 or 2006, Suggs probably wouldn’t have been the same leader then as he would eventually become. Weddle and Mosley certainly carried more clout over time than when they first arrived, making it difficult to simply point to Thomas as the solution.

It’s a process, but the Ravens must figure out these defensive woes much sooner than later.

There’s no shame in struggling on the road against the explosive Chiefs offense, but being embarrassed in your own building by the Browns rocks the foundation of what you claim to be.

And the defense doesn’t have that obvious leader to pick it up in the meantime.