Eisenberg: Embattled Defense May Surprise Some People


Since their loss to the Patriots in the AFC title game last January, when it comes to adversity on defense, the Ravens have hit for the cycle.

They've lost veteran starters to free agency. They've lost the NFL Defensive Player of the Year to a major injury. They've seen a new unit coordinator take over for the third time in four years. They've lost crucial players for the season to injury.

What do safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard, cornerback Cary Williams, linebacker Jameel McClain and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata have in common? They're the only Ravens' defensive starters from 2011 who are still starting in mid-October 2012.

The byproduct of these events has been a startling decline. Ranked third in the league in 2011, the Ravens' defense is No. 26 through six games in 2012. With the memory of back-to-back horror shows on the ground against the Chiefs and Cowboys still fresh, many fans are expecting to have to cover their eyes when the Ravens take on the Texans and Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster Sunday in Houston.

"It makes me sick, is the best way I can put it," Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees said Thursday of his unit's falloff in performance.

It helps a lot that the Ravens are 5-1, one of only two AFC teams over .500, but their defense is still experiencing the toughest of times.

So here's my question: Is this it? Is the narrative not going to change? Are the Ravens just going to stink on defense in 2012 and have to outscore people to win? Are fans going to have to get used to that being the new reality of Ravens football?

Or is it still possible for the defense to get itself together and begin to impersonate its proud former self?

During Pees' emotional rant in his weekly session with local reporters Thursday – a classic, in case you missed it – he revealed he was not new to these circumstances or questions.

"I've been down this road once before a few years back (when he was defensive coordinator in New England)," he said. "We weren't ranked very good after about four or five weeks, and then we ended up about the last 12 weeks of the season being the best defense in the league."

If anything, that lets you know the Ravens aren't about to settle for being ranked so low. They're going to fight it. And according to Pees, there's plenty they can do to get better even with Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb out for the year, Ngata banged up and Terrell Suggs just coming back.

They can tackle better, Pees said. They can stay in their lanes better up front, he added. They can ply their various crafts better, employ sounder technique.

Oh, and to repeat, they can tackle better.

Between that return to fundamentals and the uplifting return of Suggs, who could be in game-changing shape by December (my idea of a reasonable timetable), it's possible the current status quo is altered down the line; that the bu-bu-bumpy road the defense is traversing isn't an inescapable dead end so much as a crossroads with a somewhat smoother lane.

It's probably asking too much to expect a return of the forbidding unit of legend; there's just been too much subtraction. This whole plot line about the offense having to rise up and carry the defense for a change is liable to persist.

But my guess is it might be a mistake just to write off a defense that features Ngata, Suggs and Reed and is accustomed to imposing its strength on opponents rather than the other way around.

Asked if he had the necessary talent to succeed, Pees said, "We do, and we also have the talent to be better than what we are playing – that's the biggest point. We aren't playing up to what we are capable of playing, whether we have guys out or not."

I came away from Pees' session thinking that if he could sway his players with his powerful emotions on the subject, the Ravens' embattled defense might surprise some people before this season is over.

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