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Eisenberg: Too Soon To Judge, But Ravens Defense Worth Monitoring

Posted Aug 23, 2014

The Ravens are experimenting during the preseason, but some concerns aren't without merit.

The Ravens defense has yielded often enough in the team's first two preseason games that a checklist of concerns has arisen.

There's the rash of injuries at cornerback, which has raised doubts about who will man the position when the season opens on Sept. 7.

There's the pass rush, or lack of it – no sacks so far from either Terrell Suggs or Elvis Dumervil, the team's top two pressure guys.

There's the run defense, which has given on the edges a bit too often for anyone's comfort.

It's enough to make the state of the defense a hot topic on talk shows and message boards, for what that's worth. I'm sure Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees raised a few eyebrows this week when he was asked if he still believed the Ravens could field a top-five defense, and replied, "I think we can be higher than that. The sky is the limit."

Personally, I'm not going to eke out onto the ledge yet. It's August. Two months from now, no one will remember what happened in the preseason. Pees admitted this week that he's running vanilla schemes so as not to tip his hand on what he's cooked up for 2014. He also said the secondary has allowed some big plays because he "put some of the DBs in those positions to see if they can do it."

In other words, he's experimenting, seeking to determine what he's got in terms of personnel and the ability to use certain alignments.

For the record, that experimentation will continue Saturday night against the Washington Redskins at M&T Bank Stadium.

"I'm going to call the game to see where we are in certain situations," Pees said. "That's what [preseason] is all about. It's not to prep so much for Washington. It's to prep us for Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and Cleveland [to start the regular season]."

But while it's way too soon to conclude that the sky is falling, those concerns listed above aren't without merit.

At cornerback, I'm taking a wait-and see approach. The situation is going to change. For instance, I'm expecting Lardarius Webb to start the regular-season opener after sitting out the preseason with a bad back. Webb told reporters last week that he was far enough along that he thought he might get in some preseason snaps. The coaches decided against that, but it sounds like he'll be able to go. (The issue going forward will be how his back holds up during the regular season.)

It also sounds like Jimmy Smith (chest bruise) will be able to start on Sept. 7. Head coach John Harbaugh said that while he won't play against the Redskins, he could have played if it were a regular-season game.

Regardless of how those injuries progress, having quality depth at cornerback is going to be crucial, especially since it's not clear how long Asa Jackson (ankle) is out. I've thought all along that GM Ozzie Newsome might make a deal to pick up a veteran who could jump into the rotation.

As for the pass rush, there's no doubt the Ravens are going to need to apply steady pressure, and expect Suggs and Dumervil to lead them, but that's really an area that shouldn't even be measured in the preseason. Pees isn't going to show anything on tape for the Bengals and Steelers to study.

Of all the concerns, the run defense tops my list. To be specific, it's the edge of the run defense, not so much the interior. The middle held its ground nicely last weekend in Dallas, as Pees pointed out, volunteering some useful stats.

"Last week, we had 15 plays in the running game that (went for) two yards or less. That's a pretty good day on 25 runs," Pees said. "Unfortunately, there's an asterisk to that, though, because there were four plays for over 10 yards, which you can't have."

Most of those "plus" plays developed because the Ravens' edges didn't hold, which also happened against the 49ers' starting offense the week before. That's obviously a trend that can't linger if the Ravens want to field a top defense. Stopping the run is their first rule on that side of the ball.

"We just have to eliminate that, and they're easily eliminated," Pees said of big plays on the ground.

It's way too soon for judgments, but there are things to monitor.

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