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Eisenberg: More Worried About Ravens' Offense or Defense?

QB Lamar Jackson
QB Lamar Jackson

Coming out of Pittsburgh and heading into Cleveland, are you more worried about the Ravens' offense or defense?

That it's a legitimate question says a lot about the challenge the team is facing as it tries to hold on to a prime slot (No. 3) in the AFC's playoff pecking order.

I'm tempted to call it a tie, i.e., I'm equally worried about the offense and defense. But after the Ravens passed on a tie and boldly went for the win with a late two-point conversion attempt Sunday in Pittsburgh, it's clear that ties are out in Baltimore in 2021.

So … I'll make a call and go with the defense as a larger concern as the Ravens enter the final stretch of the regular season.

You might not agree. The play of the offense has been worrisome lately. Baltimore has scored 10, 16, 16 and 19 points in the last four games, a major decline. Lamar Jackson has thrown 10 interceptions in his last six starts.

In Sunday's loss, the Ravens allowed seven sacks, committed eight pre-snap penalties and failed to take advantage of a whopping time of possession advantage early in the game. For the fifth straight game, they either tied or lost the turnover battle.

Although Jackson almost pulled out a win by directing a late touchdown drive, his quarterback rating was below his season average for the third straight game.

That's plenty to worry about, but I'm still going with the defense, which is truly at a crisis point now that cornerback Marlon Humphrey is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle.

Remember when the offense was staggered by losing all of its running backs right before the season began? This is the defense's version of that emergency.

The secondary was already just hanging on without two starters, cornerback Marcus Peters and safety DeShon Elliot. Baltimore ranks No. 31 in the league in passing yardage allowed.

Although he had some ups and downs in 2021, Humphrey was still far and away the most effective piece of the reconfigured secondary. His loss is a huge subtraction at the worst possible time.

The Ravens have no choice but to just carry on with what they have, which includes capable options such as Anthony Averett, Tavon Young, Chris Westry and Jimmy Smith. But they're all playing with various health issues that have limited their ability to practice lately.

The pass defense might be OK Sunday against a Cleveland passing offense ranked No. 24 in the league. After that, though, Baltimore ends the regular season against the Packers' Aaron Rodgers, the Bengals' Joe Burrow, the Rams' Matthew Stafford and Roethlisberger again – all quarterbacks who can light you up.

It should help that the Ravens are right at the top of the league in rushing defense, third-down defense and red-zone defense. But a habit of giving up big plays and points late in games hasn't gone away, as Sunday's loss illustrated.

The offense probably has more to clean up with its short-term goals of cutting down on sacks, penalties and interceptions. (Whew.) But it has the ultimate problem-solving element – Jackson – and that lessens the concern to a degree.

His own to-do list includes making better decisions on some throws and unloading the ball sooner on some dropbacks to avoid being sacked. Defenses are going to keep harassing him with heavy blitzes until he starts making them pay more for doing it.

But to be clear, a unique and dynamic playmaker ranked ninth in the league in rushing and No. 14 in passing yardage is where a possible solution begins.

Bottom line, there's plenty to worry about on both sides of the ball, to the point that it's really a tossup as to which needs more help.

But the Ravens have generated plenty to worry about all season while navigating a fearsome run of injuries and a long gauntlet of close games and unpredictable performances.

They've done a nice job of surviving it all thus far, as evidenced by their 8-4 record and one-game lead in the AFC North race. But the challenges are persistent.

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