MINNEAPOLIS -- Don't blame Baltimore's latest loss on its kicker. Blame it on its defense.
For the third straight week it wasn't good enough. For the second straight week it committed costly mistakes on the game-winning drive. And for the first time in I don't know how long it exposed holes that need to be plugged and questions that need to be answered.
|Veteran Ray Lewis knows this is definitely not the Ravens D of old. (Getty Images)|
"You guys can all figure out where you're going to place the blame," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh after the 33-31 loss, "but we're not interested. Our job is to go to work tomorrow, identify the things we need to correct and identify the things we did well and need to do better to become a better football team. We need to build on this experience."
Well then, let's make this simple: What the Ravens need to correct is their pass defense. Period. It's just not good enough to take them to the next level. A week ago it was punctured by Palmer over and over on a game-winning 70-yard drive where the Ravens committed three penalties. This time it was shredded for a 63-yard catch, a 58-yard catch and a big pass-interference penalty -- all of which led to Minnesota scores.
The 58-yard catch will serve as an example of everything that is wrong with the Ravens right now. With the Vikings down by one and just under three minutes left, Favre rolled right, dodged a pass rush, then waited for someone to break loose. That someone was Sidney Rice, who was locked in single coverage with cornerback Frank Walker. Walker was on the field in place of starter Fabian Washington, who, as he readily admitted later, "deserved" to be benched.
Anyway, Sidney Rice went up for the ball, Walker went up on Rice and the two crashed to earth -- with Rice holding the football. If he had not, no problem. Walker was flagged for his second interference penalty of the quarter.
"I'll take the punishment," he said. "Put it on my back."
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That's generous of him, but, no, this is not on his back. This is on everyone's back who played on a defense that once was one of the best, if not the best in the league. But those were the days when the Ravens crushed the pocket, intimidated quarterbacks, forced turnovers and stopped just about every team from thinking about running the ball.
OK, so they sacked Favre three times. Big deal. They missed a zillion other times, one reason he missed only eight of 29 attempts. They forced zero turnovers. And, for the second straight week, they were gashed by an opposing running back. Last week it was Cedric Benson. This time it was Peterson. After a string of 39 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, the Ravens allowed two in the last two contests, and, yes, that's a concern.
But what's worse is that Peterson nearly eclipsed that mark on two carries, one a 58-yard dash and the other a 26-yard run. The 26-yarder came on Minnesota's first drive, a 6-play, 61-yard series that was too easy. But then the Vikings did it again, on their next possession, driving 60 yards to score their second touchdown for a 14-0 lead. That doesn't happen on the Ravens. At least it never used to.
"The bottom line," said linebacker Ray Lewis, "is that we have to get off the field."
Fixing the pass defense will help. The Ravens believe they have the people to get it done, so take this week's bye to plug the holes. For all the criticism their cornerbacks took, they didn't get the necessary help in some big-play situations from normally reliable safeties. Washington sat down because he couldn't cover the slant, but let's not single him out. Walker floundered. Domonique Foxworth floundered. The safeties weren't very good. The pass rush was worse.
"Trust me," said Washington, "things will turn around."
Baltimore can only hope. For whatever reason its secondary is struggling to get its act together, its pass rush isn't bailing anyone out and here's the evidence: Through six games the Ravens have surrendered 13 pass plays of 24 yards or more. Not good.
Hey, if you score 31 points you should win. A year ago, Baltimore scored 24 or more points 10 times. They won all of them.
"We have to play better coverage," Washington said. "That's simple. Everybody sees that. We're not playing as we usually play. We're a good secondary. We're just struggling right now."
As players rightly cautioned, it's too soon to panic. The Ravens are only one loss behind Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the AFC North. Plus, they survived a 2-3 start a year ago -- a start that included a three-game losing streak -- to make it to the conference championship game. But that Ravens defense ranked second overall, second against the pass and led the league in takeaways. This Ravens team isn't anywhere near. Not yet. Not now.
"I couldn't be more proud of this team," said Harbaugh after it fought back from a 17-point deficit. "There are many things we can and will get better at -- and we have to get better at. But the essential element is place. Our guys have the heart of a lion. That doesn't make it OK not to finish the game or to play the way we did in some stretches, but it's the key element. And we can build on that."