Ravens' secondary problems become of primary concern

On the Ravens

November 22, 2005|By MIKE PRESTON

It appeared as though the Ravens completely shut down the Pittsburgh Steelers offensively two days ago, but there was an area that caused immediate concern. There were about three or four plays where coverage in the secondary was broken. If the Steelers had Ben Roethlisberger instead of "Terrible Tommy" Maddox, this might have been a different game.

Unless Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer gets hit by a car or has a dead arm from his showdown with Peyton Manning, the Ravens can't afford to have as many mistakes Sunday against the Bengals in Cincinnati. If they do, receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh will run out of touchdown celebrations.

Against the Bengals and Palmer, a miscommunication in the secondary can easily translate into six points. Several of them could result in an easy Cincinnati victory.

"Everybody makes mistakes," said Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. "From a mental standpoint, we're not close to making the number of mistakes we've made in the past. But the ones we made Sunday, we'll act on them. We're aware of who we're playing Sunday and what they have."

Let's refresh some memories. The Bengals have one of the league's best passing games and the league's top young gun in Palmer. They have a great set of receivers in Johnson and Houshmandzadeh, who have had success against the Ravens recently.

Against the Steelers on Sunday, the Ravens had some glaring mistakes. The most notable was a 32-yard pass down the left sideline from Maddox to receiver Hines Ward with 12:04 left in the half. Ward wasn't just wide open, he had opened a car lot.

If "Terrible Tommy" had seen him sooner, this had touchdown written all over it. Ward was so open, in fact, that he started coming back toward the ball so Maddox could see him.

What happened? Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle came off the coverage, and seemed to look for safety help. There was none there. It happened several times Sunday, once on a fourth-and-one at the Ravens' 35 with 3:30 left in the third quarter. The Steelers went with a play-action fake, and Maddox had a wide-open receiver in the middle, but fortunately for the Ravens outside linebacker Bart Scott sacked him before he could throw.

The Ravens also had problems defending Pittsburgh screens, one that went for an 11-yard touchdown late in the game.

"We busted a couple of zero man coverages," said Ryan. "We turned guys lose a couple of times, and one time he didn't get it done. That happens sometimes when you play man-to-man. On that fourth-and-one, the Steelers had shown run 100 percent of the time in those situations, and we just didn't get it covered. Fortunately, Chris McAlister was able to get back on that end of the field to hold things up while Bart made the sack."

But it's apparent that the Ravens haven't gotten this defense down yet. It's one thing to get beat physically, but there have been times the Ravens aren't in the same ZIP codes with receivers. There have been numerous occasions where cornerbacks have turned to the safeties with blank looks on their faces as if to ask, "Where was the help?"

It's clear the Ravens miss Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed, who missed his fifth straight game with a high ankle sprain. He was the leader of the secondary. He made calls along with fellow safety Will Demps. They kept everyone in proper alignment.

Reed was supposed to be the center fielder in Ryan's 46 defense. Without Reed, the Ravens have been hurting. Demps is good against the run, and can become that extra linebacker near the line of scrimmage on running downs.

But Demps' weakness in pass coverage has been exposed. Chad Williams has been the starter at the other safety position, but he's more like Demps than Reed. Williams can go forward well, but is slow getting into the backpedal. With Williams failing at times, the Ravens have been forced to occasionally move Dale Carter from nickel back to safety.

But Carter, 35, has been dealing with injuries.

"You know, I'm not concerned about our coverages, I'm not concerned about anybody we're putting out on the field," said Ryan. "I think our guys are playing their butts off."

No one can question that they're trying, but something is missing. Maybe it's a lack of cohesion. McAlister and Gary Baxter had been fixtures at the cornerback positions for several years until Baxter joined the Cleveland Browns during the offseason. The Ravens replaced him with Rolle, who has better cover skills, but doesn't play the run as well.

Rolle is new, and basically so is Williams. Carter signed with the Ravens a season ago, but missed last season with a blood clot in his lung. So, he's basically playing in a new scheme for the first time as well. McAlister has played well at times, but other times looked lost. Nickel back Deion Sanders has had his problems, too, and teams seem to be zeroing in on him over the middle with their No. 3 receiver.

Somehow, though, this all has to change Sunday. The Ravens have played reasonably well without Reed and middle linebacker Ray Lewis, but Cincinnati is different. The Bengals like to throw the ball. They have a good mix of run and pass. They have two good receivers and a strong offensive line.

And Carson Palmer is certainly no Tommy Maddox.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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