Eisenberg: Fixing Run Defense First Priority

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With the Ravens' defense struggling to make stops and the team on a two-game losing streak, everyone in town suddenly is a Mr. Fix-it. Or a Ms. Fix-it.

According to whom you speak to, the defense needs a) better cornerbacks, b) a better pass rush, c) Rex Ryan back immediately, d) a different scheme, e) something that works if all else fails.

I have my doubts about some of that. Ryan, the popular former defensive coordinator now coaching the Jets, did a great job here, but some people view him unrealistically, as a miracle worker, which he isn't. His Jets' defense and the Ravens' unit, under new coordinator Greg Mattison, have almost identical statistics through five games – and the Ravens are still ranked in the top third of the league in fewest yards allowed, so maybe just part of the sky is falling, not the whole sky.

Of course, I'm not disputing the notion that the pass defense needs to improve. It is ranked 26th in the 32-team NFL. You can't see-no-evil that.

"We know what we are, and we know we haven't been that for the last couple of weeks, which is disappointing," cornerback Domonique Foxworth said.

More pressure up front? Tighter coverage in back? Let's see both.

But heading into Sunday's road game against the undefeated Vikings, the top item on my defensive fix-it list isn't any of those mentioned above.

The rushing defense, which sagged in last week's home loss to the Bengals, is the first thing that needs to be straightened out if the Ravens are going to get back to playing the stingy defense for which they're known.

The success of the Bengals' Cedric Benson, who Sunday became the first runner since December 2006 to gain at least 100 yards against the Ravens, was tantamount to someone dropping a bunch of sludge into a car engine – guaranteed to mess things up.

"Our defense is based on stopping the run. That's what we do, where we have success, by making the other team be one-dimensional," defensive lineman Haloti Ngata said. "We need to get back to that."

It sounds strange but it's true: A struggling pass defense is going to perform better when it knows the other team has to pass. In fact, that's been part of the Ravens' core defensive philosophy for years. Take away the running game, limit your guesswork, adjust your blitzes and coverages accordingly, and get busy.

When Benson ran off a handful of solid gains, putting the Bengals in favorable down-and-distance situations, the Ravens' defense was completely thrown off. Suddenly, its opponent could beat it two ways, both in the air and on the ground – a much tougher predicament.

What happened to a rushing defense that is as intrinsic to the Ravens' personality as Ray Lewis' pregame dance?

"We (linemen) just have to communicate with the linebackers," Ngata said. "There were times (on Sunday) when both of us ended up covering the same gap, and the runner hit the open hole (beside them). We just have to play sound gap defense. That's how we stop people. We just have to get back to that."

So this is fixable?

"Oh, for sure. We don't normally break down like that. We're working on it. We'll get it corrected," tackle Kelly Gregg said.

They'll need to get it corrected by Sunday; the Vikings' Adrian Peterson is among the game's best runners, with more rushing yards than any back in the league except Benson through five games. And he ranks fourth in attempts, so even if the Ravens stop him early, the Vikings will keep giving him the ball, believing he will eventually bust out.

The fact that Brett Favre is the Vikings' quarterback makes the challenge even pricklier, but make no mistake, the Ravens would prefer that the game come down to 40-yard-old Favre trying to beat them, as opposed to Peterson.

"It's a test. (Peterson) is a special player," Lewis said. "But from our standpoint, we just have to go out and start another streak (of not allowing 100-yard rushers). That's what you do in this game. It's like shooting free throws. Some days you're going to hit 96 percent, and some days you miss. But either way, you just move on and do what you do."

And what the Ravens do on defense, first and foremost, is stop the run and take their chances from there.

John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.

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