Sun setting on Ravens' once-dominant 'D'?

Atlanta is latest team to score late to tie or win game

November 12, 2010|By Jamison Hensley, The Baltimore Sun

One voice could be heard shouting in the Ravens locker room after Thursday night's gut-wrenching 26-21 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

"We let them off the hook," safety Ed Reed said loudly while walking out. "We let them off the hook."

The last seven games of the regular season will tell whether this is a rallying cry or the last call for one of the most dominant defenses over the past decade.

Ray Lewis, Reed and the rest of the Ravens defense used to strike fear into NFL offenses. These days, it's the Ravens who should be the ones worrying.

The Ravens (6-3) are no longer keeping teams out of the end zone. In the past four games, the defense has given up 23 or more points three times.

They can't stop teams that challenge them through the air. Tom Brady, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Matt Ryan have each thrown for at least 292 yards against the Ravens in their past four games.

And, perhaps most disturbing, the Ravens defense continues to crumble late in games. Over a four-game span, the Ravens have allowed three game-tying or winning drives in the final two minutes of regulation.

The latest debacle came Thursday night, when the Ravens held a 21-20 lead with 1:05 left in the game and needed one defensive stop to have the best record in the NFL. Instead, their defense looked powerless as Ryan marched the Falcons 80 yards in 45 seconds and finished off the Ravens with a 33-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Roddy White.

"We had it won," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. Reed is "right -- we let them off the hook. We had them, and we didn't finish it.

"You have to give them credit. We'll learn from it. We're not apologizing. We're not holding our heads down. We'll come out and keep playing."

The Ravens aren't even blaming the officials this time, even though there were three questionable calls in the fourth quarter: a face-mask penalty on linebacker Terrell Suggs, a debatable catch by Atlanta's Michael Jenkins and an interesting noncall on White's game-winning touchdown.

But unlike last year when Ron Winter's officiating crew flagged the Ravens for two marginal roughing the passer penalties at New England, the Ravens didn't lash out Thursday night.

"It's the easy way to point the finger at the ref," Suggs said. "I think as a professional, we have to do a good job at looking at ourselves. What did we do that cost us the game?"

While the Ravens aren't pointing any fingers, White acknowledged that he shoved Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson to the ground to get open for the game-winning score.

When Ryan rolled out to elude pressure, White made contact with Wilson with his right hand, sending him to the ground. White easily caught the pass and scored the 33-yard touchdown.

"Yeah, you've got to do whatever you've got to do to win," White said. "It was one-on-one coverage with one guy. But he was kind of flat-footed, and he tried to grab me, so I just pushed him down."

But the Ravens' defense was pushed around in many other ways before that game-changing play.

The Ravens seemed to wear down against the Falcons' no-huddle attack. Ryan went up-tempo against the Ravens from the start of the game and exposed some mismatches in their spread formations, which put the Ravens in a 10-0 hole in the first half.

Cornerback Fabian Washington was benched twice in the previous two games because quarterbacks were targeting him. On Thursday night, Lardarius Webb was pulled when Ryan attacked him numerous times in the first half. At this point, the third cornerback behind Chris Carr and Josh Wilson is suspect.

The Ravens are struggling to stop drives on third down. They allowed a season-worst 12 conversions on third down against Atlanta. This has become a startling trend for the Ravens, who have allowed teams to convert half of their third downs (33 of 65) the past four weeks.

As a result, Atlanta had three scoring drives of 10 plays or longer.

"That's the key right there," Reed said. "Instead of us getting off the field, they converted when they had to. Against a good team, you can't do that."

The Ravens were given three days off before reporting back to team headquarters Monday. That's when they'll begin preparations for the Carolina Panthers, who have the NFL's worst passing attack.

Still, the Ravens will be seeking redemption from Thursday night.

"We had it. There ain't no other way to say it," Suggs said. "We had it, and we let them go. We let them escape. But there's not many times this Ravens team's going to let our fans down and let our city down. We're going to come through more times than not."

Note: Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was fined $10,000 for roughing the passer Sunday against Miami, according to an NFL spokesman. Ngata was disciplined because he "unnecessarily struck the quarterback with his helmet," a league spokesman said. He had been bracing for a fine since he was flagged after lowering his head and crashing the crown of his helmet into Chad Henne's chest after the quarterback had thrown a pass.

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