From left, Anquan Boldin, Joe Flacco and Todd Heap watch as Atlanta… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
On defense, the Ravens don't scare teams anymore. The Ravens walk with the same swagger, and they still talk a lot, but the results are different from years past.
Opposing teams are running and throwing on the Ravens, and six times this season the Ravens have blown fourth-quarter leads (three of those times the Ravens came back to win). A lot of fans point to defensive coordinator Greg Mattison as the problem, and he is the obvious target.
But the "bottom line," as team leader Ray Lewis would say, is that the Ravens have four legitimate playmakers on defense, and one of them, safety Ed Reed, is playing hurt, and another, linebacker Lewis, is 35. If you throw outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata into the mix, that's it. They have no more.
In the NFL, the general theory is for the coaching staff to put the team in position to win with about four minutes remaining, and then it's up to the player to make a play. Against the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night, the Ravens were ahead 21-20 with 65 seconds left in the game and the Falcons taking possession at their own 20.
Nearly a decade ago, Ravens fans could have left the stadium or turned off their TV sets guaranteed of a victory because back then the Ravens had playmakers such as Lewis, Michael McCrary, Sam Adams, Peter Boulware, Jamie Sharper, Chris McAlister and Rod Woodson.
Now, no lead is safe. On Thursday night, Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez made plays, but they play for the Falcons.
There are numerous criticisms of Mattison, who is in his second year as coordinator. Some say he is too passive and doesn't blitz enough. They say he needs to get rid of the three-man rush and take the prevent defense out with the trash, too.
Mattison, however, has tried a lot of different combinations and numerous strategies to make the defense better, but the impact has been limited. It wasn't Mattison who got pushed down with one hand by White on Thursday night. And it wasn't Mattison who dived at running back Jason Snelling's feet, allowing him to score a touchdown. In fact, the last time I checked, Mattison didn't even suit up at all.
The real problem is a lack of talent. The Ravens don't have one big, physical shutdown cornerback who can take out the opponent'stop receiver. If you want to blitz more, you need that type of cornerback who can play press coverage and disrupt the rhythm of the passing game.
After Suggs, the Ravens don't have another legitimate pass rusher. So if you blitz, your cornerbacks are exposed. If you don't, a quarterback such as Tom Brady or Peyton Manning will pick you apart given time. It's basically a no-win situation, but it's not like we all didn't know this going into training camp.
Certainly, there is a real concern here about how far the Ravens can go in the postseason facing a potential quarterback list of Brady, Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers, who will roll out a spread formation just as Atlanta did.
I suspect that once the criticism of Mattison dies down, some will be directed at general manager Ozzie Newsome.
Some of it is fair, but there is a bigger picture. When the Ravens had a great defense, there were always a lot of first-round picks on that side of the ball. That has changed the past couple of years with an emphasis on offense and the selection of top picks such as offensive linemen Michael Oher, Ben Grubbs, quarterback Joe Flacco and even running back Ray Rice. The Ravens went against that trend last April, selecting Texas outside linebacker Sergio Kindle with their top pick, but Kindle might never play again after fracturing his skull while falling down two flights of stairs shortly before training camp opened.
In the NFL with its salary cap, there is always some type of trade-off as far as roster building. Every team has a weakness, and the Ravens are no different. Fortunately for them, they are one of the most balanced teams in the NFL.
But their weaknesses were exposed Thursday night, which is why Ryan threw 50 times for 316 yards and the Falcons were 12 of 20 on third-down conversions. Those same reasons were why the last Falcons scoring drive covered 80 yards on seven plays in 45 seconds.
The Ravens are a team in transition. They wanted more balance. They have achieved it because they have more playmakers on offense and fewer on defense.
That's why their defense doesn't scare anybody anymore. There aren't a lot of playmakers left.