As offense gets it together, is defense coming apart?

ON THE RAVENS

November 14, 2006|By MIKE PRESTON

This is certainly no time to panic, but there is some reason for concern. After years and countless questions about the offense, there are now questions about the Ravens' defense.

After starting the season as one of the best defenses in the NFL, and even being likened to the great Ravens group of 2000, the team's cloak of invincibility has been removed in the past three weeks. Even the lowly Tennessee Titans, who had the league's 28th-ranked offense before the game, rolled up 367 yards of total offense.

The Ravens won the game, 27-26, but what happened to the defense? Weren't we waiting for the offense to develop and catch up with the defense? If a rookie quarterback like the Titans' Vince Young can hurt the Ravens with big plays, then veterans like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady would pummel them into submission.

The Ravens won't talk about it publicly because coach Brian Billick prefers his players and assistant coaches to put on the positive spin. But the Ravens can't spin out of those big holes in their pass defense the past three games, and they can't hide the fact that Tennessee running back Travis Henry rushed for 107 yards, becoming the first runner to gain more than 100 yards against the Ravens this season.

What gives, and why does it appear one group is moving in one direction, and the other in another?

Some will point out that the Ravens were without Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis on Sunday. Of course, that hurts. He's the signal caller and sets the tempo. Without question, he would have made some difference, but the Titans physically pounded the Ravens' defensive front. Outside linebackers Bart Scott and Adalius Thomas couldn't shed blocks.

Maybe we're dealing with the size problem here. The Ravens aren't extremely big on defense, but they're very fast. In the past, they have worn down in the second half of seasons, so that's something they have to keep an eye on.

The secondary continues to give up big plays. This group looks unorganized, and the defensive backs seem to have no clue where one another is on the field. The problem could be traced to the departure of former secondary coach Donnie Henderson. Even when Mike Nolan was the Ravens' defensive coordinator in 2002 and 2003, Henderson made most of the calls for the secondary and devised strategy. The secondary hasn't been the same since Henderson left after the 2003 season.

Cornerback Samari Rolle was victimized several times by the Titans, and that will continue to happen for the rest of the season until he shuts a top receiver down. Fellow cornerback Chris McAlister has many ups and downs, and safety Ed Reed continues to struggle even though his play has improved in recent weeks.

Coming into the season, there were few questions about the defense. But the New Orleans Saints threw for 368 yards, and the Carolina Panthers had an additional 365 through the air. Tennessee had good balance in both passing and rushing. The Ravens are 7-2 and have managed to win games with big plays and some luck, but they have to be scratching their heads a little about the defense.

The group was supposed to maintain status quo until Billick brought the offense up to par; at least, that was the strategy three weeks ago. The Ravens have played some very weak defensive teams in Cincinnati, which gave up 42 second-half points to the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, and the Titans, who have the worst defense in the league.

But the Ravens had 374 yards of total offense against the Bengals and 421 against the Titans. You also have to look past the numbers.

McNair has played better. He looks more comfortable in the pocket. He still makes extremely dumb mistakes, but those things happen. There was a time when the Ravens had to get second-year receiver Mark Clayton the ball because he had big-play potential. They now have another long-distance weapon in Demetrius Williams. The Ravens have plenty of other weapons besides Clayton and Williams. They have a possession receiver outside the 20-yard line in Derrick Mason and a go-to receiver inside the red zone in tight end Todd Heap.

The Ravens aren't the Air Coryell Chargers of the late 1970s and 1980s, but at least now opposing defenses fear the long ball. The only real problem is the lack of a running game. It's a combination of the offensive line making few holes and running back Jamal Lewis having trouble finding them when they are there. The Ravens can use backups Musa Smith or Mike Anderson to replace Lewis, but there's something missing from this running game. It has become too one-dimensional, too stagnant.

But overall, you can't argue with the progress. With the defense, the group has regressed. If it were just the Tennessee game, you could attribute it to a bad day at the office. But there has been a gradual slide for three weeks. With a 7-2 record and a three-game lead over the nearest AFC North competition, the Ravens have some margin for error. They've got plenty of time to work out the kinks before the second season starts.

Since 2000, no one has ever asked questions about the defense. The Ravens would prefer not to have any about the offense or defense going into the postseason.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

Read Mike Preston's Ravens Central blog at www.baltimoresun.com/ravenscentral.

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