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Ravens Defense Falters Again, Leaving Questions Heading Into Bye

110418-Article-Defense-Falters

Defensive tackle Brandon Williams summed up the subdued mood in the Ravens’ locker room following Sunday’s loss.

“It always sucks losing to the Steelers,” Williams said.

From a defensive standpoint, there were multiple problems during the 23-16 defeat. The Ravens couldn’t contain Steelers running back James Conner (107 yards on 24 carries). They didn’t force a turnover. They couldn’t get off the field on third down, where the Steelers converted 10 of 16 opportunities. The Ravens didn’t have a sack until Pittsburgh’s final possession.

The Ravens (4-5) have lost three straight, and a defense that entered Sunday’s game ranked No. 1 in the NFL has looked vulnerable and fatigued in the past three weeks. The upcoming bye may help the Ravens’ defense find fresh legs, but they also need to find answers.

“They dominated the game for the most part, for the majority of the game,” Ravens defensive end Brent Urban said. “It’s a tough one. It hurts, but you’ve got to hand it to them.”

Pittsburgh’s offense handed it to the Ravens’ defense, methodically marching down the field and possessing the football for 36:29 of the game’s 60 minutes. Pittsburgh’s offensive line opened holes for Conner, who often finished his runs by powering for extra yards after the Ravens struggled to bring him down. Those runs by Conner kept quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in manageable second- and third-down situations, and he picked apart Baltimore’s defense with accurate throws that kept the chains moving.

One of the game’s most frustrating sequences for Baltimore occurred when Roethlisberger (28 for 47, 270 yards, two touchdowns) left the game for one play after having the wind knocked out of him. The Ravens trailed, 20-13, early in the fourth quarter, and they had the Steelers backed up facing 2nd-and-20 from their own 5-yard line.

Surely, the Ravens would stop Pittsburgh this time. But they didn’t. Second-year quarterback Josh Dobbs entered the game, calmly dropped back into the end zone and completed a 22-yard strike over the middle to JuJu Smith-Schuster for a first down.

The crowd was silenced. Roethlisberger reentered the game. The Steelers continued their 11-play drive that ended with a field goal, giving them a 10-point lead. For the Ravens, it was a deflating turn of events, especially for safety Eric Weddle, who thought he had Smith-Schuster covered on the play.

“We had it covered perfectly,” Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “Dub (Weddle) was right there and just had his back turned. Probably the best pass of his career so far in the NFL. We had the right call for it, we just didn’t make the play.”

That has become a common statement during the past three weeks. Through Week 6, the Ravens were the only NFL team that had not allowed a second-half touchdown. But in Week 7, they allowed 17 points in the fourth quarter against New Orleans. They allowed 36 points in a loss at Carolina in Week 8.

Now this performance against Pittsburgh. Ever since the Ravens punished Tennessee with a franchise-record 11 sacks in Week 6, opponents have gone to three-step and five-step throws against the Ravens, giving the pass rush less time to reach quarterbacks. Baltimore’s pass rush has been negated with just two sacks over the last three games. Meanwhile, Baltimore has struggled to cover wide receivers and tight ends, especially over the middle of the field.

Nobody on the Ravens’ defense even pretended that they were not concerned. The Ravens talked about having a special defense earlier in the season, but the last three games have been humbling.

“That’s not up to our standard,” linebacker/defensive back Anthony Levine said. “We know what our standard is and that wasn’t it.”

Veteran defenders like Weddle and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs may be feeling the wear and tear of the season more than younger players, but collectively the defense seems to be playing a step slow in recent weeks. The schedule will only continue to be difficult after the bye.

The Ravens most hope things change following their bye in Week 10, when they host the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 11. Having already lost once to the Bengals, the Ravens’ playoff hopes would take a serious hit if Cincinnati sweeps the season series.

“I could stand here and say the corny lines that we always say, but our backs are against the wall now,” Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “There’s no room for error at all. We had to win this game and we didn’t, so Bengals is a must-win obviously. The feeling that we have is disgusting.”

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