Ravens' defense slipping of late

Elite status eludes 4th-ranked unit's grasp with 4th-quarter lapses

`Can't afford to relax'

Shortcomings evident in latest loss to Jags

November 30, 1999|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

Despite improved play this season, the Ravens' defense will not be considered elite until it solves an old problem: shutting down a quality passing attack and making big plays in the final quarter to decide games.

The unit's high ranking and statistics are impressive, but in three games this season, the Ravens' defense has failed to protect a lead in the fourth quarter, allowing an opponent to win with a late scoring drive.

Also, one week after the Cincinnati Bengals passed for 246 yards, the Jacksonville Jaguars threw for 328 yards in a 30-23 win Sunday, as receivers Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith combined for 18 catches, 234 yards and two touchdowns.

In the past two games, the Ravens (4-7) have dropped from No. 1 in the NFL defensive rankings to No. 4, with the powerful Tennessee Titans (9-2) coming to Baltimore on Sunday.

"If you want to be a top 15 or top 20 defense, then you can make mistakes," said Ravens strong-side linebacker Peter Boulware. "If you want to be No. 1, you can't afford any mistakes at all. We've set certain expectations here and if we want to meet them, then we can't afford to relax at all.

"Against Jacksonville, we played three great quarters. But then we got a little relaxed, became inconsistent. Instead of relaxing, we should have become more focused."

The Ravens were ahead 16-7 going into the final period but allowed 23 fourth-quarter points. One touchdown was the result of a 21-yard interception return by defensive end Tony Brackens, but the Jaguars had touchdown drives of 61 and 78 yards in the final period. The last drive, the game-winner, started with 6: 26 left in the game and ended with back James Stewart running 4 yards for the touchdown with 1: 39 remaining.

Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell threw passes of 5, 17, 13, 7, 2, 4 and 21 yards during the drive, and the Ravens had no answer for him. Brunell completed 27 of 47 passes for 338 yards and two touchdowns.

"There were different circumstances in each game," Ravens coach Brian Billick said of the late rallies. "They weren't the same mistakes in those three or four games. It may sound like a lame excuse, but we're dealing with that and what we can do to correct it. My expectations for the defense are higher because of what we have invested over there. I'm frustrated, but those things happen."

Outside linebacker Jamie Sharper said the Ravens played almost entirely zone two weeks ago in Jacksonville during a 6-3 loss. The Ravens appeared to play a lot of soft zones Sunday, with the Jaguars throwing countless completions over the middle, but Billick said his team used a mix of zone and man-to-man.

"The problem we had yesterday was we didn't run enough zone," Billick said. "We had some mishaps defensively. If anything, we probably did a little bit more schematically than we've done in a few games. Looking back and analyzing, maybe we did too much.

"We weren't just sitting back in a passive, two-deep zone and they were carving up the middle. Where we had some mistakes was communication between players. We had mistakes where a couple of players were trying to do too much and put others at risk. We also knew that if we sat in too passive of a zone, a guy like Mark Brunell would tear it up."

It really didn't matter. The Ravens tried to support cornerbacks Duane Starks, DeRon Jenkins and Chris McAlister on the outside against Smith and McCardell by sliding their safeties over, which left the middle of the field open. The Ravens gave up six receptions of more than 20 yards.

It's interesting that the Ravens' cornerbacks seldom pressed or jammed the receivers at the line of scrimmage. In the past two drafts, the Ravens selected McAlister and Starks, two of the team's best athletes, to match up with the likes of Smith and McCardell. The Ravens' cornerbacks stayed 7 to 9 yards off the line of scrimmage. That was another mistake, especially against Jacksonville's slot receiver or tight ends.

"We recognized that they were going to be more aggressive [compared to the first meeting]," Billick said. "We just didn't execute. We did not jam the inside receiver off the line as well as we needed to play that style of defense. So, yeah, from a technique standpoint, that needed to be better."

Communication shouldn't be that much of a problem considering the Ravens have had the same defensive coordinator, Marvin Lewis, and the same scheme for four years. Defense is also the area in which the Ravens have invested a lot of money in draft picks, such as first-rounders Starks, McAlister, Boulware and middle linebacker Ray Lewis, and second-rounders Sharper, Herring and Jenkins.

Regardless, the Ravens say their defense is better than last year and on the verge of being great.

"No matter what kind of success you're having, you're going to make a mistake at some point -- mentally or physically," Billick said. "Even a player around as long as Cris Carter is going to run the wrong route. Sometimes it's a combination of players across the board, or a combination of a veteran like Woodson and a young player like Chris McAlister. You limit your mistakes to less than the team you're playing, and you come out a winner."

Said Sharper: "Since I've been in the NFL, we've been losing, so I don't know what it takes to be great. I do know that we have a lot of guys that work hard, and if we keep working hard, we'll make it through this. We've got to step it up now, make plays at the end of the game like Jacksonville."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Tennessee Titans

Site: PSINet Stadium

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Titans by 3 1/2

Tickets: Sold out

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