Defense isn’t ‘great’ yet, but has potential
Nearly two weeks ago, the Dallas Cowboys rolled the Ravens defense in a 27-17 victory that really wasn’t as close as the score indicates. On Sunday against Cincinnati, the Ravens dominated as they held the Bengals to 64 rushing yards.
By Monday morning, the talking heads on sports radio were showering praise on the unit, saying how great it had become.
So, what gives? Are the Ravens so good that coach John Harbaugh is being asked to compare them to other strong defensive teams in franchise history?
It’s time to put this defense into perspective. The Ravens are good, not great. They might be able to get to that level in a year or two, with some additional players, but it’s hard to get there these days because so many rules favor the offense.
But if they were great, they would have showed out instead of getting showed up against Dallas. They didn’t get beaten because of scheme or one or two big plays; they were the recipients of a physical beatdown in which Dallas scored on its last five possessions.
The Ravens rebounded with a strong performance against Cincinnati, but the Bengals were missing their two top pass catchers: wide receiver A.J. Green and running back Giovani Bernard.
Even Harbaugh concedes that all this greatness talk is premature.
“I would like to think that this defense can be that caliber of defense,” Harbaugh said. “That’s what you work for and strive for, but when you’re in the middle of it, it’s really not what you think about, because
that’s big-picture stuff. What we’re trying to do is look at the details in the end that will help us get to that point.
“We’re not there yet, I don’t think, to those defenses. I’m talking about two defenses, maybe three, in the last15, 16 years. We can get there. It’s going to come down to how well we cover people in the back end, how well we cage the quarterbacks — keep them in the pocket and get to them — also stopping the run.”
Never has Harbaugh been so on target. The Ravens have already achieved one of those objectives. Few teams can run against them and they are ranked No. 1 in rush defense, allowing only 74.9 yards a game.
The front seven might be the best in the NFL, paced by tackles Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce and ends Lawrence Guy and Timmy Jernigan.
Inside linebackers C.J. Mosley and Zachary Orr are fast, and outside lineback- er Terrell Suggs is still one of the best in the NFL at holding the edge against the run. It’s ironic that during the previous two seasons some critics were calling for defensive coordinator Dean Pees to be fired. It was never really about Pees. It was about the maturation process. Williams is in his fourth season, while Orr, Jernigan and Mosley are third-year veterans. Pierce is a rookie.
The Ravens, though, still have problems to overcome.
One is covering receivers. Safeties Eric Weddle and Lardarius Webb are good inside the box and helping support the run, but slow in coverage. Neither has the range to be a good center fielder in defending the long ball.
The play at cornerback hasn’t been spectacular, with or without often-injured starter Jimmy Smith. Opposing teams should come in prepared to throw 35 to 40 times against the Ravens.
They don’t have a shutdown cornerback. Their top cover guy, Smith, is decent, but certainly wouldn’t force a good team to throw to the other side of the field. Rookie cornerback Tavon Young is aggressive and learns fast, but not fast enough to know how to work officials yet.
The Ravens are also still searching for a dominant pass rusher. Rookie outside linebacker Matthew Judon could be that player, but he needs more polish. Outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith has cooled off after a good rookie season, but he gets a reprieve because he is only in his second season.
Great defenses bring pressure from their front four, and that allows them to drop seven into coverage. The Ravens have to blitz to get pressure. Suggs can still get after the quarterback, but he tends to disappear during games against quality opponents. Elvis Dumervil is on the recovery trail with a foot injury, but it’s doubtful he can return to his dominant form of two years ago.
The great Pittsburgh Steelers defenses of the 1970s and the Chicago Bears defenses of the mid-1980s didn’t struggle with getting pressure on the quarterback. The Ravens defense of 2000 could beat a team in so many ways, and teams such as the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos have won recent titles with dominant defenses.
But that’s still hard to do. The NFL wants pass-happy offenses, and it coddles quarterbacks. Defensive backs aren’t nearly as aggressive as they were a decade ago in press coverage.
The Ravens have the beginnings of something special, and great defense has been a tradition in Baltimore.
It could happen again, but they aren’t there yet. Maybe in a year or two.
* Times for these games could change