What happened to the Ravens defense down the stretch?
On paper, it's quite a mystery. The franchise's signature unit was ranked No. 1 in the league through 12 games. To borrow a baseball phrase, it was pitching a masterpiece. But the same unit suddenly morphed into one of the league's worst in the final four games. To borrow another baseball phrase, the defense got lit up.
Every week brought a new version of ugly. New England's Tom Brady passed for over 400 yards. The Philadelphia Eagles rushed for 169 yards. The Pittsburgh Steelers ran wild in the fourth quarter. The Cincinnati Bengals piled up 20 points in the first half.
By the end of the season, the defense had slipped from No. 1 to No. 7, still a strong overall showing, There was marked improvement, a rise from No. 24 in the league in points allowed in 2015 to No. 9 this year. But while that's palpable progress, the harsh reality of those final games will keep anyone from raising their arms in triumph.
What happened? I don't think it's that complicated.
In the first quarter of the New England game – the quarter that began the Ravens' season-ending four-game stretch – cornerback Jimmy Smith suffered a high ankle sprain. He sat out the rest of the season, never played again. And the absence of the team's top cornerback was a profound difference-maker.
Sure, other factors contributed to the falloff. There were missed plays, blown assignments, key penalties. But big picture, the unit was never the same after Smith went out, and that wasn't a coincidence.
The importance of Smith's presence has been evident for several years, partly because he has missed time with various injuries and the defense has always paid a price. It happened earlier in 2016 when Smith missed time with a concussion and a back ailment and the defense was brought to its knees in losses to the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys.
After he went down again in New England, the Ravens went with Tavon Young and Shareece Wright as their cornerbacks. That's a rookie and a veteran journeyman. Yes, the emergence of Young, a fourth-round pick, was one of the season's bright spots, but no one should expect him to be an "island" guy. And Wright played his way out of a starting spot earlier in the season.
Needing to support the corners, the Ravens went to a "split safety" alignment, basically adding insurance to the pass defense. It's one of many alignments in Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees' arsenal, but without Smith, Pees had to go with it hardcore, which left the run defense shorthanded and more vulnerable to being gouged.
Meanwhile, even with the extra insurance, the pass defense still suffered without Smith.
"What we didn't do at the end was we didn't make the plays that we made early in the season on the back end," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "We weren't able to break up passes in critical situations. We weren't able to get the critical interceptions that put an end to drives and therefore win you the game. We have to be able to do that. We have to be able to do that with guys making plays. We have to cover people at the end. In order to also do that, you can't be playing split safety all the time to protect your back end, which opens up your run defense."
In sum, a chain of events precipitated the defense's falloff, and that chain began with Smith's injury, highlighting a critical imperative for the Ravens going forward – the need to raise their game at cornerback.
It's been an issue for years, and at this point, to have a more realistic shot at achieving what they want, the Ravens need to get beyond it. They need to try to keep Smith healthier, if that's possible – change his training regimen, do something. And more importantly, either through the draft, free agency or a trade, they need to add quality cornerbacks. I'm talking plural, guys who can cover, hold up without requiring permanent support.
Yes, it's easier said than done, but the Ravens need to make it a priority. Nothing they do in the looming offseason will impact their 2017 season more. They've been walking a fine line, holding their breath in hopes that Smith doesn't get hurt and expose their biggest defensive issue. They're overdue to get beyond that.