The Ravens entered Week 8 with the NFL's top-ranked defense. There was no evidence of that watching Sunday's game.
Carving up the Ravens with ease at times, the Carolina Panthers rolled to a 36-21 victory that was a slap in the face to a Baltimore defense that has a lot of pride. Carolina scored on its final four possessions of the first half and eventually built a 27-7 lead in the third quarter that was too much for Baltimore to overcome.
That makes two straight defeats for the Ravens (4-4), and two straight games in which their defense has sprung a leak. The New Orleans Saints scored on their final three possessions in Week 7, leading to a 24-23 Ravens defeat that offered a warning sign.
This performance was far worse. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (21-for-29, 219 yards and three total touchdowns) had time to throw. His receivers were usually wide open. The Ravens simply looked a step slower, unable to create a turnover or a big play because they were often out of position.
"We're 4-4, we're an average team, we just lost, we got blown out," Ravens safety Eric Weddle said. "We're, I wouldn't say rock bottom, but … we got to get back to work. Obviously the last couple of weeks we haven't played well enough to win. Each individual, coach included, player, we've got to come back to work and work even harder.
"Look at yourself. Don't get emotional, don't get sensitive. Get coached up. Look at the things you didn't do too well and correct them."
Carolina's final touchdown of the game was symbolic, a 12-yard run by Newton that became a jog on his way to the end zone. The Panthers fooled the Ravens, faking a pass play to the right before Newton rolled to his left and saw nobody close enough to stop him.
"It's very surprising," Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce said. "When you work as hard as we work, you never see yourself putting a performance like that out on the field. We've got to get on the same page and correct it immediately. This is a critical time of the season."
This game raised some serious concerns for the Ravens at the midway point of the season. The Ravens went the first six weeks of the season without surrendering a second-half touchdown. But were some of those games more about who the Ravens were playing, and less about how good their defense really was?
The Ravens set a franchise record with 11 sacks in Week 6 against the Tennessee Titans, but their offense is far from being one of the NFL's elite. The same could be said for the Buffalo Bills, who the Ravens dominated in Week 1, and for the Cleveland Browns, who the Ravens held without a touchdown in Week 3 despite losing in overtime. Baltimore's best defensive showing may have come in Pittsburgh. The Steelers offense is rolling now and comes into M&T Bank Stadium in a week.
Over the past two weeks, the quality of competition has stepped up and Baltimore's defense has taken several steps down. The Ravens have come up short the past two weeks against two quarterbacks that know what it takes to lead a team to the Super Bowl – Drew Brees of the Saints and Newton. After Baltimore's defense held its own for three quarters against New Orleans, Brees made a couple of brilliant plays that helped rally the Saints to 17 fourth-quarter points and a victory.
Veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs has cautioned the Ravens all season about not getting too high after wins or too low after losses. But halfway through the season, Suggs said it was time for the Ravens to become more consistent.
"This is disappointing," Suggs said. "Eight games in, .500, it's not where you want to be. We got eight more, and with all these home games we got left, we've definitely got to take care of business at home starting next week. We've got eight games left. In this conference, we're probably going to need seven of them to get in for sure. The attention to detail increases now. We have to play better in the red zone and in situational football."
The Ravens' pass coverage has not been as solid without cornerback Marlon Humphrey (thigh) who missed his second straight game. In this game, the defensive breakdowns for the Ravens were plentiful.
Carolina doesn't have as much offensive talent as New Orleans, but the Ravens had no answer for almost anything the Panthers tried. Baltimore's linebackers were consistently beaten in pass coverage, even C.J. Mosley, who followed his best game of the season with perhaps his worst.
They have some older players like Suggs and safety Weddle playing key roles. Suggs is tied for the team lead in sacks and Weddle has been solid, but overall, the Panthers offense simply had more life than the Ravens' defense. Is the Ravens' defense showing fatigue just halfway through the season?
"That's probably a good question from a bird's eye view," said Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh, when asked if the defense looked fatigued. "It's a fair question. But we can't be fatigued. We have to finish out."
If the Ravens don't fix things quickly, things could get worse. Baltimore hosts the Steelers next week and the Bengals after that. The Atlanta Falcons, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers are on the schedule in December. Those are three of the NFL's top offensive teams. If Baltimore's defense does not step up, it will continue to get lit up.
Things can change quickly from week to week, and the Ravens know they can play better defensively than this effort. But regardless of what the stats say, you won't hear any talk about the Ravens having a special defense this week.
"Tip your hats. They came prepared to play and they whipped our butts," cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "I feel like we're the same team we were last week, the same team we were two weeks before that.
"This loss doesn't mean that we're the worst defense now. It doesn't mean we're the best defense, obviously. We just have to get back and grind. We're still the same team."
Check out the best images from Sunday's Week 8 game in Carolina.