Stumbling `D' falls short of intimidating

ON THE RAVENS

October 02, 2007|By MIKE PRESTON

The trademark swagger has disappeared as the yards and points continue to pile up.

For the past seven years, the Ravens' calling card was defense. Opposing teams feared the Ravens because they talked, intimidated and backed it up with some of the most ferocious hitting this side of the 1985 Chicago Bears.

But four games into the 2007 season, nobody fears this defense anymore. It's one thing to get lit up by Tom Brady, but second-year quarterback Kellen Clemens from the New York Jets in the fourth quarter? It's one thing to get beat by Peyton Manning, but the Cleveland Browns' Derek Anderson in only his sixth career start?

Young quarterbacks once feared cutting their teeth on the Ravens' defense; now, they're just cutting up the secondary. But it's not just on the back end of the defense.

Where are the playmakers?

The Ravens have given up 20 or more points in three of their four games, including 23 against the Arizona Cardinals and 27 to the Browns on Sunday.

In their brief history in Baltimore, the Ravens have produced great linebackers such as Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, Jamie Sharper and Adalius Thomas.

They seemed to have two more on the way in Bart Scott and Terrell Suggs, but they haven't made many big plays this season. That's not to say they haven't played well, but there haven't been any bone-rattling, game-changing plays.

Last year, Scott had the hit of the season, on Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Suggs had 9 1/2 sacks last season and was mentioned around the league as one of the top young pass rushers in the game.

Suggs doesn't have a sack in 2007. Neither does Scott. At least Scott has an excuse. With Thomas signing with the New England Patriots during the offseason, he has assumed some of Thomas' duties, especially dropping into pass coverage.

And Suggs can point out that he gets more attention as far as double teams because defensive end Trevor Pryce has missed the past two games with a broken wrist.

But great players overcome other teams that game-plan specifically for them. Boulware did. So did end Michael McCrary and tackle Sam Adams. They started the swagger that these Ravens have begun to lose.

You could see it on the sideline Sunday. Lewis was in some animated conversations with assistant coaches and at one point was consoled by one of them.

Outside the locker room Sunday, Lewis spoke only briefly about the game, and he was biting his tongue as much as he could. But the more he held back, the more you could see the pride start to swell his chest and the frustration show in his face.

"Football is a very simple game," Lewis said. "You take the best people you have, line them up against their best, and let them go at it. Forget all of this deception and trickery. Let's just keep it basic."

Lewis wouldn't elaborate. But basically, he was telling defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to stop trying to play so many mind games with other teams and to keep the game plan simple.

Lewis, though, probably isn't done. The Ravens play in what former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan used to call "Ray's World." In the past when Lewis was upset, he would walk into a defensive coaches meeting. The room would go quiet, and Lewis would say, "OK, let's fix this thing," and he offered instruction.

It will happen again. But Lewis might not be able to fix these problems. With or without starting cornerback Samari Rolle, the Ravens have had trouble covering in the secondary.

Corey Ivy, filling in for Rolle, is adequate as a nickel back, but will continue to struggle as a starter. Reserve Ronnie Prude might be better as a safety than as a corner. Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed continues to gamble and give up plays. The player who has played well is cornerback Chris McAlister, even though he gave up a 78-yard touchdown reception Sunday.

But a lot of receivers are making plays against the Ravens. The Bengals' Chad Johnson had five catches for 95 yards and a touchdown in the season opener. Jerricho Cotchery had seven receptions for 165 yards for the Jets, and Arizona's Anquan Boldin caught 14 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns.

Some of the catches are the result of the scheme Ryan plays. Because he puts so much pressure on the quarterback, it often leaves his cornerbacks exposed one-on-one. Also, because the Ravens have been so dominant against the run, teams might think pass first and run second when they play them.

This is a new experience for the Ravens. For so long, defense has been the backbone of this franchise and has carried it into the postseason and even to a Super Bowl title after the 2000 season.

The Ravens need a lift. They might be able to build some momentum this week against the San Francisco 49ers, who have a weak offensive line and will be playing with a backup at quarterback in former Raven Trent Dilfer.

The Ravens have to become a dominant defense again, especially going into the second half of the season with games against New England and the Indianapolis Colts.

The Ravens talked quite a bit about being a serious contender after last season. They talked about playing for the championship in the big game and how they could be better than last season.

But that's when they had a swagger. It's not there anymore. If the Ravens are to go deep into the playoffs, they have to get it back.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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