Eisenberg: Defense Under Most Pressure Sunday


It didn't shock me that the Ravens offense had a tough time in Denver in the season opener. The Broncos were at home and feature one of the NFL's top defenses. That was a challenging situation.

Nor did it shock me that the Ravens offense bounced back with a big performance in Oakland last weekend. The Raiders defense is suspect and Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco took full advantage.

As for the Ravens defense, it played well in Denver and that wasn't a shock. The organization has worked hard to reconstitute that unit through the draft and free agency. There's talent on that side of the ball.

That's what made the defense's performance in Oakland last weekend so surprising. Giving up 37 points to a Raiders offense that barely put points on the board the week before? THAT was a shock.

Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh was right when he said both units need to be more consistent, and both certainly need to be humming for the Ravens to get their season back on track in their home opener against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday.

But of the two, the defense is the one that's really under pressure to find its way in the wake of a what-was-that showing in Oakland.

No single player or phase of the unit is immune from scrutiny heading into Sunday.

As noted, GM Ozzie Newsome endeavored to build what he – and most analysts – believe is a solid defense, basing his thinking on certain assumptions. He had enough faith in his young linemen that he traded Haloti Ngata. He believed Jimmy Smith could come back from a foot injury to be a top corner. He believed Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs could still gin up a pass rush despite being in their 30s. He thought linebacker C.J. Mosley could build on a superb rookie season.

I didn't have major quibbles with any of that thinking. Honestly, it's how the Ravens always proceed – count on your big names as anchors, and keep getting younger.

But those assumptions had a rough time in Oakland.

After rewarding Smith with a big contract during the offseason, the Ravens watched him get burned for a long, tone-setting touchdown early. The entire secondary, supposedly revamped, melted down. Safety Kendrick Lewis was brought in to help with communication, but outages occurred. Veteran cornerbacks Kyle Arrington and Lardarius Webb struggled in coverage.

Up front, the promise of young starters Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan were a big reason Ngata was traded, but the Raiders dominated scrimmage, averaging 5.1 yards per rush while giving quarterback Derek Carr time to throw. Jernigan finished with zero tackles. (He did have two quarterback hits.) Williams, ordinarily an immovable object, had one tackle.

As for the pass rush, it suffered when Suggs was lost for the year, enabling opponents to focus on Dumervil. He hasn't registered a sack in 2015 after setting a franchise record in 2014, and I'm guessing he'll keep seeing double-teams until someone else does enough to cause opposing offenses to pay attention to them. Maybe Jason Babin can help.

Suggs' injury gives Courtney Upshaw a chance to show he can do more than set an edge, but he rang up just one solo tackle in Oakland. Inside linebackers C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith appeared a step slow at times.

I don't mean to pick on the defense. The offense also has plenty to work on. Its third-down conversion rate is down 16 percent from a year ago. It has produced three touchdowns and six field goals, so it can finish drives better. It still needs to establish a rhythm in the running game.

But while the offense is going to experience ups and downs, its long-range prospects are solid, I believe. That's what happens when a unit is built around a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, with quality linemen and veteran playmakers also in the mix.

The defense is more of an enigma.

Granted, it's hardly fair to judge it based solely on its worst day, which Oakland surely was. You know things are rough when Harbaugh chastises the effort.

But there's a level of play the Ravens expected on that side of the ball, and with Cincinnati up next, featuring an array of offensive playmakers, the process of establishing that level needs to start immediately.

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