Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale asked his players in Tuesday’s meeting to raise their hand if they thought they played a good game against the Cleveland Browns.
“When no one can raise their hand … that’s concerning,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “The biggest thing we’ve come to is every man has to play better.”
The Ravens rank 27th in the NFL in defense and are coming off back-to-back games of more than 500 yards surrendered for the first time in franchise history.
It’s unsettling, to say the least, for a unit that finished last season ranked No. 1 in the NFL and a franchise that prides itself on its defense and physicality. And it’s unacceptable heading into this Sunday’s rivalry game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Veteran outside linebacker Pernell McPhee is quite familiar with that tradition given that it’s his second tour in Baltimore. He played on a fantastic 2011 defense and Super Bowl-winning 2012 squad.
McPhee was brought back this offseason to help instill that defensive tradition into this young unit that lost Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle and Za’Darius Smith. So seeing the Ravens gashed by the Browns last Sunday didn’t sit well with McPhee.
“I can’t get that taste out of my mouth. It’s like a throw-up taste that you haven’t brushed your teeth or gargled out,” McPhee said. “I don’t think there’s a better week than going into Pittsburgh and beating them.”
As Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday, getting run on like the Browns did just isn’t Ravens football. The next day, the Ravens backed that up by releasing third-year outside linebacker Tim Williams, who had troubles setting the edge and just two sacks in 19 games played (none yet this season).
Baltimore replaced him and another open roster spot with a pair of veteran inside linebackers – L.J. Fort and Josh Bynes, who is another throwback to the 2012 Super Bowl season – to try to stop the bleeding, particularly in run defense.
Humphrey said the roster moves were a wake-up call to the rest of the Ravens defense.
“It shows that the guys that were here, they weren’t getting it done. And for the guys that are still here, you better get it done or fix something or you else you could be with a new team,” Humphrey said. “It’s like, ‘Woah, man, that happened kind of quick.’ You didn’t see that coming. So I think it opened everybody’s eyes.”
In some ways, it’s the perfect week for the Ravens defense to re-establish itself, especially when it comes to physicality.
The Steelers are always a physical team, and that ramps up when the Ravens come to Heinz Field. With Ben Roethlisberger out for the rest of the year, leaving second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph making his third career start, the Steelers will rely on the run game. They used the Wildcat formation in a Monday Night Football win over Cincinnati.
“They’re going to try to be physical and probably run the ball down our throat,” McPhee said. “That’s a challenge for me and the guys in the front seven to do something to plug up the leak that we have right now.”
The return of Pro Bowl nose tackle Brandon Williams (knee), who was a surprising last-minute scratch from last week’s game, would certainly help Baltimore’s run game, but the issues run deeper than that.
The Ravens need to be more physical setting the edge. Players have also over-pursued and not fit in the right gaps in run defense at times. Multiple players bounced too far outside Sunday against the Browns, creating a wide-open crease for Nick Chubb’s 88-yard touchdown run.
McPhee also said schemed-up runs, used by both the Chiefs and Browns, have given Baltimore problems, and he doesn’t expect that to continue as the Ravens adjust.
“You have to play the run,” Harbaugh said when asked about the pair of new inside linebackers. “Just downhill run fits, a little more physicality, a little more experience is what we’re looking for. ... We expect to be atop
During the early portion of Wednesday’s practice, the Ravens defensive backs hit the blocking sleds and focused on tackling fundamentals after missed tackles were another issue versus Cleveland. It’s a padded practice week before heading to Pittsburgh, as Baltimore gets prepared for a gut-check game.
“We just have to get back to playing technique and fundamental football and being very, very physical and violent,” McPhee said. “I don’t think we’ve been as physical and violent as we could be.”
McPhee was asked if he’ll talk to some of the younger players about what to expect in terms of the physicality they can expect in the Ravens-Steelers rivalry. He said when he was a young player, there wasn’t much to be said.
“It was kind of said on the practice field,” McPhee said. “I’m going to go out there today and practice and try to be very physical and very violent and try to lead them by my actions and not just talk. Sometimes we get caught up in talking and that doesn’t solve nothing.”
If talking does help, the Ravens got some wise words from one of the best of all-time. Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed was at the Under Armour Performance Center to do an interview with safety Earl Thomas, and Harbaugh invited him to come talk to the team at the start of practice. Reed talked about the Steelers rivalry, and the tradition of defense and playing for your teammate in Baltimore.
"We’ve been playing great defense around here for quite a long time," Harbaugh said. "The guy that’s standing behind there [Ed Reed] can vouch for that. He was a big part of that all those years. So, we expect to be at the top of the heap in the defensive world, and we’ll do everything we can to get back there."