The Ravens proved that they still have one of the more formidable rush defenses in the NFL, suffocating the Washington Redskins by holding them to 25 yards on 14 carries in the Ravens' 23-3 win Saturday night.
Defending the pass, however, might be a different matter.
The Ravens surrendered 365 passing yards to the Redskins, and the defensive coverage provided by the linebackers in the middle of the field could be a cause for concern.
Five of Washington quarterback Donovan McNabb's 11 completions and 89 of his 206 yards came in the middle of the field. Those plays tended to come at the expense of the linebackers -- some of whom were tasked to patrol the middle while safeties and cornerbacks blitzed.
"We're a pressure team, and they were trying to get the ball out quick," said linebacker Tavares Gooden, who is a fixture in the team's nickel and dime packages. "Sometimes it bit them in the butt, and sometimes it didn't. We've just got to get better at covering those different types of routes underneath when we do have pressure."
Much of the Redskins' success through the air was the result of Washington coach Mike Shanahan's desire to see what the pass offense could do against a pressure-driven defense like the Ravens' unit. That's why Washington quarterbacks combined for 47 attempts, dwarfing the team's 14 rushing plays.
McNabb did much of his damage on the outside, testing a cornerback corps that did not have the services of Lardarius Webb (recovering from knee surgery and still on the team's physically-unable-to-perform list) and Chris Carr (left hamstring injury) but welcomed back Fabian Washington (knee surgery) in his first game since Nov. 22.
The Redskins also appeared to cut significant swaths by finding receivers matched up against the Ravens' linebackers, who had trouble keeping up with wide receiver Santana Moss and tight end Chris Cooley.
On the third play of the game, Moss settled into a spot between rookie cornerback Prince Miller and linebacker Ray Lewis for a 13-yard catch on third-and-6.
Three plays later, McNabb connected with Cooley -- who got past Gooden -- for a 15-yard gain on third-and-14.
On the second play of Washington's third offensive series, McNabb found Cooley again. The tight end shed Lewis for the 18-yard catch.
Then, on back-to-back plays on the Redskins' final possession of the second quarter, McNabb found Moss on crossing routes underneath the coverage for a combined 43 yards.
Jameel McClain, who made three tackles and recorded two quarterback hurries, blamed himself for Moss' third catch in the middle.
"On one play, the quarterback scrambled, and I could've stayed on Santana Moss, but once the quarterback got out of the pocket, I would say that maybe I paid too much attention to him," McClain said. "And that's how I ended up having to chase Santana down."
Early in the contest, Washington seemed to catch the Ravens in their base defense with either Lewis and McClain or McClain and Dannell Ellerbe on the field. In obvious passing situations, the defense usually inserts Gooden.
Saturday night might be interpreted as a case where the defense missed the presence of Brendon Ayanbadejo. Gooden is fast, but Ayanbadejo is built like a large safety, and he played on the unit's nickel and dime packages until he tore a tendon in his left quadriceps Oct. 4.
But as susceptible as the pass coverage was, Lewis pointed out, the Redskins failed to score a touchdown with their first offense.
"That is one of the reasons you have training camp and preseason -- it's a learning experience," Lewis said. "There are mistakes, we work out kinks and figure out who fits where. I think most preseason games are built on that."
Ellerbe emphasized that the key for any defense is to keep the ball in front of, not behind, the unit.
"We'd rather them catch the short and intermediate routes than long, deep balls," he said. "We can break on the little, short routes."
Coach John Harbaugh didn't seem alarmed by the defense.
"I thought we had coverage for the most part," he said.
The defensive lapses might benefit the Ravens, who can spend the coming week of practice honing their schemes in preparation for a visit from the New York Giants on Saturday night.
Gooden said the unit will study the film in the meeting room and make adjustments.
"You can always get better," he said. "Some of the drops could have been deeper to cover different routes. We were seeing different routes that we hadn't seen. There's just things that we can go over in the chalk room. [Linebackers coach Dean Pees] is going to show us those routes, and we're going to know how to defend them from now on. So they're going to have to bring something else to get it over our heads."
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