Missing big plays from defense, Ravens' offense even more lost

November 27, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

Scenes like this one in the Ravens' locker room used to play out almost every week in past seasons, especially last season: They had won a game, and the defense had taken the ball away to help set it up. The players were so giddy, they could even joke about one that had gotten away.

"They took one from me," Terrell Suggs had cracked, shrugging off the third-quarter interception return that was called back because of a defensive offside flag. "Heartbreaking. So Deion [Sanders] told me, go get another one." Suggs got another one near the end of regulation to halt a Steelers drive toward the winning points.

Last year's Ravens were perhaps the most larcenous team in the NFL, leading the league in turnover margin, finishing in the top 10 in interceptions, fumble recoveries and total take-aways, and scoring more defensive touchdowns (seven) than anyone else.

That ability to flip momentum and put points on the board without their offense being on the field is what defined last season's Ravens. This season, as they take on the Bengals in Cincinnati today, their inability to do so has made this a completely different team.

Yes, it's patently unfair to blame the defense for this year's record (3-7) being the reverse of last year's at the same time (7-3). But nobody in or around the Castle in Owings Mills can deny the impact the absence of defensive big plays has made.

The problem is, nobody can explain it, either. The best anyone can come up with is what coach Brian Billick called "fate." As trite as it sounds, the footballs literally haven't bounced their way.

"Certainly we're an aggressive defense, we have good secondary people - you'd think that would yield more turnovers," he said last week. "But for some reason it hasn't."

It's tough to blame that one on Billick. With all the talk of the emphasis on the 46 defense coming into the season, the defensive philosophy hasn't changed drastically from last season. The players have, with Ed Reed and Ray Lewis out with injuries for the past month - but the Ravens weren't forcing turnovers much when they were on the field, either.

So how does a defense go from opportunistic to not in one season? Through 10 games last season, they had 21 take-aways and had run back five for touchdowns, with three others coming back just short of the goal line.

This year's numbers are 11 - fourth fewest in the NFL - and zero. They're third from the bottom in turnover margin at minus-11. Lucky them: The Bengals are first at plus-20.

Also, two sure touchdowns, by Will Demps on an admittedly inadvertent whistle against Cincinnati and by Suggs last week, were negated by officials. Countless others have skidded off and through players' hands. The most memorable was in Week 1 against the Colts, the one Chris McAlister couldn't hold on to at his goal line, with nothing between him and a touchdown except 100 unpopulated yards, in the final seconds of the first half with the game scoreless.

Not to dump too much responsibility on a player or unit that doesn't warrant it, but McAlister's intercepting that pass might have changed the course of the entire NFL season. Without a doubt, the Ravens' season was altered. The defense wasn't going to be able to cover for the offense's ineptitude this time.

"We should have over 10 picks," McAlister said last week. "I should have seven interceptions right now if I catch every pass that was thrown into my hands." He shook his head.

He has lots of company this season. The Ravens have five interceptions, and most of his teammates can claim to have just missed a couple each. It has driven the players crazy; they love what they did last year and go into every week expecting to do it this year.

Now, the offense actually carries the burden for scoring. It's buck-naked last in the NFL in offensive touchdowns, with eight.

Thus, opposing offenses have no reason to even take risks, at any point in a game, that could blow up in their faces. That robs this Ravens defense of a critical element of last year's success: fear. As in, "Oh, God, please don't let us screw up against these guys."

"[Coach] Jeff Fisher always told us, `Don't let the defense make big plays, don't let them get their offense riled up,' " Samari Rolle recalled from his days as a Titan. "This year, we've played good defense, but to take the next step, we have to give our offense a short field or score some points."

Rolle smiled, then added, "That's why I was so mad at myself on Sunday, dropping that ball [in the second quarter], because that's what we've been talking about. I think that's the only thing we've been missing."

If only the other unit could say that there was only one thing missing. Yet if that one missing thing from the defense was present, this season might be very different.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Points after -- David Steele

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