Senior NFL Columnist

Ravens' wounded defense turns back clock, but might be running out of time


PITTSBURGH -- You used to be able to walk with your head held high as a member of the Baltimore Ravens defense, a renegade group of pain-inflicting, offense-curtailing players who had names we all knew and a nasty reputation that led them onto the field.

For most of 2012, they haven't come close to that, instead looking like a broken-down version of the old group, a tired, aging, injured unit that made those in Baltimore yearn for years past.

But then something happened, something to help turn back the clock, help make them feel like those old defenses, the ones that used to make quarterbacks quiver and yards hard to get.

The Pittsburgh Steelers showed up on the schedule.

For one night, this vagabond group of Ravens, minus the big name (not game) of Ray Lewis, and scarred by injuries to others, turned back the clock and won a game with defense -- although it might need an asterisk since the Steelers did play without star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger because of rib and shoulder injuries.

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In a huge AFC North game, the Ravens beat the Steelers 13-10 on Sunday night at Heinz Field to take a firm hold of first place in the division. The Ravens, who came into the game ranked 27th in total defense and 30th in first downs allowed per game, kept the Steelers to one touchdown and only three points after the Steelers scored on their opening drive. The Steelers were 5 for 17 on third down with quarterback Byron Leftwich and never could get into a groove.

"This one is always 15 rounds," Ravens defensive end Terrell Suggs said.

The Steelers and Ravens always play bloody, violent games -- and this one was no different.

It's hit, sack, hit and punt, not exactly pleasing to the eye, but certainly the trademark of this series.

"I thought it was a great defensive struggle, which is not unusual," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.

Except with his defense this year, it is unusual. The Ravens have been crippled by injuries. Two of their top three corners missed the game, including Lardarius Webb, their best cover player, who is out for the year.

They also are without Lewis; Suggs is trying to round into shape after missing the first six games coming back from a torn Achilles tendon; and Haloti Ngata is a shell of himself as he battles through two injuries.

That's why the Ravens have been ripped to shreds this season for their poor defensive play.

"It's definitely something new for us," Suggs said of the criticism. "I'm starting to believe that the numbers don't matter for the simple fact we've been a top-10 defense for years and we have no Super Bowl rings to account for it. Last year in the AFC Championship Game, we lost to the 31st-ranked defense (New England). The numbers are all good for you guys to kind of pile on. The only thing that matters is 8-2, but we're not happy about it. We know we can play better."

Hidden in that quote is a hint that maybe Suggs believes what I've believed for a long time. The Ravens have to be better on offense to win a Super Bowl -- no matter how good they are or aren't on defense.

Identity change?

"I don't think we're moving away from who we are," Suggs said. "We're taking a different route to try and win a Super Bowl."

Sure sounds like an identity change. Then again, it might be coming out of necessity.

The Ravens defense got a huge break not having to face Roethlisberger. Leftwich opened the game with a shocking 31-yard touchdown run to cap an 80-yard drive, but the Ravens limited the Steelers to 220 yards the rest of the way.

It wasn't like the Ravens offense was doing much. Baltimore had 200 yards of total offense and its only touchdown came on a 63-yard punt return by Jacoby Jones, who now has three in the past five games.

We expect that from the Steelers defense. They came in as the top-ranked unit in the NFL.

"The rankings don't mean one thing to us," Harbaugh said.

Sorry, John. That's a lie. The rankings tell a story, and the story of the 2012 Ravens up until Sunday night was that they couldn't stop anybody. Change is certainly a part of it.

There were only five players who started against the Steelers on Sunday night who started in the AFC Championship Game loss to the Patriots last January. And it's really four if you count Ngata and Suggs as half-players, since they aren't close to full strength.

While they haven't really lost much on the field with the loss of Lewis, not having him around to lean on is different as well, although he was with the team this week at the stadium.

The scouting department, led by general manager Ozzie Newsome, has been tested putting together a quality defense with all the losses. Corner Corey Graham, signed this offseason as a free agent from Chicago mainly for special teams, started against the Steelers and came up big.

He was playing for the injured Jimmy Smith, who was playing for Webb. Graham picked off a Leftwich pass, batted down another in the end zone and had a big hit to force an incomplete pass late in the game.

With so much turnover, and so little to remind us and certainly him about the Ravens' dominant defenses from years past, I asked safety Ed Reed about all the criticism the defense has taken this year.

"Criticism comes with it," Reed said. "It's part of the game."

For these guys, it has been so little a part of it. That's why the early play this season has been so eye-opening.

It's also why at 8-2, and with a firm grip on the division lead, it's still tough to gauge the Ravens.

Are they good enough on offense?

Is this the start of the defense turning it around?

Are they better than a year ago?

If the answers are yes to those questions, they could very well be a Super Bowl team.

Maybe the identity is changing, but when the Pittsburgh black and gold is on the other sideline, which it will be in two weeks in Baltimore, the Ravens defense can find some of the old magic.

Now let's see if it lasts. Let's just say, I have my doubts.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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