Ravens linebacker Albert McClellan prepares for a drill during… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
It's early in the season, and usually there are questions about the offense, but my how times have changed.
There are no concerns about Joe Flacco or the pass vs. run ratio. No one is second-guessing Cam Cameron's play calling or challenging the Ravens' effectiveness inside the red zone.
The bad buzz is about the Ravens' defense, especially against the run. The Ravens allowed Cincinnati to rush for 127 yards in the season opener and that would not be a big deal in most cities except during the last decade few teams have rushed for more than 100 yards against the Ravens.
It's personal for members of the Ravens' defense.
"Overall, I was really pleased the way we played the second half," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "I was not particularly pleased with way we played the first half, especially against the run. We have to play better against the run than what we did in that game."
Stopping the run wasn't just a problem against Cincinnati, but in the preseason as well. No player consistently stood out among the front seven.
At least against the Bengals, tackle Haloti Ngata played well. Inside linebacker Ray Lewis had 14 tackles but most of those were yards beyond the line of scrimmage. It wasn't Lewis' fault.
It's hard to navigate through tons of humanity when it's pushed back in your face.
"They are all things that are very correctable," Pees said. "We just sometimes didn't play with good leverage, got kind of out of our gap. We don't really talk about gap control so much, but we got out of position sometimes and had some plays break out on us, and we can't have that."
Ravens outside linebackers Paul Kruger and Albert McClellan have to do a better job of setting the edge and controlling the direction of the runners. Kruger took 63 snaps and had only one tackle. McClellan was in for 59 plays and had two tackles.
That's not good enough.
Rookie outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, the Ravens' top pick out of Alabama, was in for 43 plays and finished with four tackles including a half a sack.
After weeks of nursing injuries, he could become a starter if Kruger or McClellan can't succeed.
"What I saw from him is he's finally starting to feel better," said Pees of Upshaw. "He's been hurt and there are a lot of things he didn't do in the preseason, part of it because he was hurt and part of it because he was learning. So, I think that is starting to come around a little bit now with him. He is starting to feel a little more comfortable in the defense. I think he felt a little better health-wise. So, we saw a little more production out of him."
The goal is to make teams one dimensional again even while the defense is in transition. Offense is in, but defense isn't totally out.
If the Ravens can have a top 10 offense and a top 15 defense, that's still a pretty good formula for success considering the team lost its top two outside linebackers from a year ago in Jarret Johnson (also the signal caller) and Terrell Suggs (top pass rusher), as well as one of its best defensive linemen in Cory Redding.
The Ravens still have Lewis and safety Ed Reed to make plays, but the trademark has always been stopping the run.
"Every team across the National Football League is going to have to something to work on," Lewis said. "We do, like always, whether it's communication or whatever it is, on the defensive side of the ball. There is one thing about playing on the road: we do get a little better communication because we can hear better and things like that. So, I think we're excited to go and play a team like this, who has a very fast-paced offense. But, I think the communication overall is probably the biggest thing we'll work on from Week 1 to Week 2."
Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy is shifty and can change directions in full stride. He is a master improviser. The Eagles struggled in a 17-16 win against Cleveland Sunday, but they'll be faster and more intense in their home opener Sunday.
McCoy isn't the kind of runner who has given the Ravens problems. They've had trouble against bigger backs with a more straight-ahead style.
But at this point, the Ravens just want to control a running game and add another victory.
"He [McCoy] is very difficult because he is a guy that will take the ball outside in a minute whether it is designed to be or not," Pees said. "The biggest challenge this week is the play may look like an inside zone play and he may jump it outside. It may look like an outside-stretch play the way the line is blocking and the way he takes the ball originally, and he may cut it back.
"So, you have to be disciplined on defense. Compared to last week, it's a different style of running game, but at the same time, we have to be very good in our leverage on the blockers, stay where we're supposed to stay, tempo the ball and have a good edge. "