Eisenberg: Ravens Defense Finds Itself in Unusual Predicament

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Taking a quick spin around the NFL after four weeks of the 2019 season, you come across all sorts of surprising developments.

The New Orleans Saints are 2-0 without Drew Brees. The Carolina Panthers are 2-0 without Cam Newton. The Los Angeles Rams were unbeaten until they gave up 55 points in a home loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs Sunday. (Huh?)

But the league might be more surprised about the condition of the Ravens’ defense than anything.

After allowing more than 500 yards in back-to-back games for the first time in franchise history, Baltimore is ranked No. 27 in total defense and No. 23 in points allowed per game.

That. Simply. Does. Not. Happen.

Time for a history lesson. In 1996, their first year in Baltimore, the Ravens ranked dead last in total defense, No. 30 out of 30 teams. They were No. 25 the next year and No. 22 in 1998. But since their early difficulties ended, few storylines in the NFL have been more dependable year after year than the Ravens playing excellent defense.

Since 1999, they’ve ranked in the top three an astonishing nine times. That’s out of 20 seasons, so they’ve been elite almost half the time.

Only four times have they failed to finish in the top 10, and only twice have they finished in the lower half of the rankings – No. 22 in 2002 and No. 17 in 2012. (Yes, when they won the Super Bowl.)

Even in losing seasons, they’ve fielded strong defenses. When they went 6-10 in 2005, they ranked No. 5 in defense. When they went 5-11 in 2007, they ranked No. 6. When they went 5-11 in 2015, they ranked No. 8.

The rest of the NFL surely is performing double-takes at the sight of them giving up so many yards and points and languishing so low in the rankings. It hasn’t happened since the franchise’s Wild West beginnings more than two decades ago, when Vinny Testaverde was slinging passes to try to keep up with what the defense yielded.

Seeing that scene reprised now, after so many years of excellence, is pretty stunning. A rough game on the road against the Kansas City Chiefs is understandable, but the defense’s inability to stop the Cleveland Browns in Sunday’s home loss raised the concern level.

Am I surprised? Absolutely. I’ll readily admit, I’ve come to believe that strong defense is so ingrained in the Ravens’ nature and organization that, as the saying goes, they can roll out of bed and hold up reasonably well on that side of the ball.

Yes, I thought it was possible the unit might take a step or two backwards in 2019 after losing five starters, including C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs and Eric Weddle, veterans who constituted the heart of the unit. But I also thought the front office had put enough draft capital, free agent commitments, player development time and salary toward the cause of playing sound defense that the floor was only so low.

I’m guessing the front office felt similarly, but regardless, what has unfolded so far is pretty much a perfect storm of worst-case scenarios.

Some of the unit’s highest-paid players aren’t coming through as envisioned. Neither are some of the young guys being asked to replace Mosley and Suggs, whose job descriptions included filling gaps and holding edges, pressuring quarterbacks, manning pass coverages – all trouble spots now.

It turns out the departure of elite players is, well, a big deal.

Injuries to Jimmy Smith, Tavon Young and Brandon Williams haven’t helped, but to be clear, they’re no excuse.

The big question now, of course, is can the defense turn itself around or is this a troubling, new normal? The Ravens certainly expect improvement. I’m guessing the past two games eventually will be regarded more as low points than typical outings.

Nonetheless, the pass defense and rush defense both need to get a whole lot better, and as of now, it’s a jump ball as to which is struggling more.

It’s a situation we haven’t seen in a while and possibly thought we’d never see again. But oh, here we are.

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