Two aspects of the Ravens' defensive performance in Denver were especially disturbing.
One, they got their top corner back but it didn't matter.
Lardarius Webb's return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament was supposedly a key to the defense's ability to carry on post-Ray Lewis, and Webb did his part, rehabbing ferociously and making it back to the lineup for the season opener. He pretty much picked up right where he left off, too. Denver's Peyton Manning tested him early a couple of times, didn't get anywhere and basically stopped throwing his way for the most part.
That's a huge plus for a defense. It's the reason a blue-chip corner is so valuable. Taking away one side of the secondary means you can concentrate on the other half, putting more people in a smaller area.
But that geometry didn't work for the Ravens in Denver. Manning still picked apart the rest of the Ravens secondary, throwing for 462 yards and seven touchdowns over Jimmy Smith, Corey Graham, Michael Huff, etc.
The defense also succeeded in stuffing Denver's running game, but that didn't matter, either. That was the other troubling aspect of what unfolded Thursday night.
Stopping the run has been the first commandment of the Ravens defense for more than a decade, going back to when Marvin Lewis was in charge. The rationale is simple, logical. If you can stop your opponent on the ground, you make them one-dimensional, limiting what they can do to try to beat you. In the NFL, any offense supposedly is in trouble when the defense knows what's coming.
The Ravens succeeded in putting Denver in that disadvantageous position, limiting the Broncos to 65 yards rushing on 28 attempts, but that seemingly didn't bother Manning in the least. Even though he often was in second-and-long or third-and-long situations, he still put on a record-setting performance.
What does it mean that the Ravens defense had those two things going for it – its best corner back, Denver's run game stopped – but still experienced a nightmare
I asked Harbaugh on Monday if stopping the run was even important anymore against a high-test pass-happy offense such as Denver's. The Ravens certainly invested in the idea during the past offseason, restocking their defensive front with Chris Canty, Marcus Spears and rookie Brandon Williams. It appears the effort has paid off and the run defense is more solid than a year ago. But does it matter? In Sunday's Green Bay-San Francisco game, two other playoff-caliber teams rushed for 153 yards and passed for 726. The ball was in the air 60 percent of the time.
Harbaugh insisted that stopping the run was still crucial.
"If you don't stop the run, it makes it really impossible to stop the pass," he said. "Our issue was the big plays. You can't give up a screen for a touchdown. That's just not acceptable. You can't leave guys wide open. You can't miss tackles that turn into big plays. You can't turn guys loose in the red zone. You can't do it."
The Ravens certainly hope the Denver game doesn't mean their secondary is going to be a trouble spot. They have undergone a major personnel shuffle there, parting ways with three starters from the Super Bowl-winning team. Of the new group, only Webb and Huff have consistently earned starting spots throughout their careers, and none of the group has earned a Pro Bowl appearance. (Graham made it as a special teamer.)
The Ravens penciled in their secondary as a strength, but its problems in Denver ran the gamut from poor tackling to poor technique to a lack of communication to what Harbaugh called "scheme issues."
On Monday, Harbaugh said he expected significant improvements starting with Sunday's home opener against Cleveland.
"We can really improve back there going forward," he said. "Obviously, we have to. That kind of performance, in the end, is never going to be acceptable. We're capable of playing far better than that, and we have to."
If they're going to, they need to start by taking better advantage of what's going right, i.e., having their top pass defender back and stopping the run.