Once reliable defense betrays Ravens again

ATLANTA – The Baltimore Ravens joked and laughed away the notion that their once-vaunted defense is under siege. But it doesn’t take a statistical genius to see that the Ravens, once the symbol of defensive excellence, are starting to slip.

It’s one thing to have New England quarterback Tom Brady(notes) throw 44 passes against the Ravens. It’s quite another when the likes of Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes) or the Atlanta FalconsMatt Ryan(notes) are firing away with abandon. Moreover, the Falcons didn’t even try to hide their plan Thursday evening at the Georgia Dome, opening the game in a spread-formation, no-huddle attack and ending it with a 33-yard touchdown pass that left Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson(notes) sprawled on the ground and complaining to an official about being mistreated.

Talk about juxtaposition. It used to be Ravens defenders who left opponents sprawled about, trying to collect themselves literally and figuratively.

While the Ravens had plenty of chances to avoid falling 26-21 to Atlanta, the storyline runs far deeper than this one game and all the usual questionable calls that go with any contest. Fact is, Baltimore’s defense is getting taken on by full throttle assault. A team that spent a decade defining malevolence and fear is getting challenged.

Over the past four games, the Ravens defense has allowed at least 23 points three times, including a season-high 34 against Buffalo. In each of those three games, all featuring blown fourth-quarter leads, the opposing quarterback threw at least 43 passes (Fitzpatrick’s total as he fired his way to 373 yards).

Worse, Baltimore’s third-down defense against Atlanta was atrocious. The Falcons converted 12-of-20 third downs and that doesn’t include three more that were converted by Baltimore penalties. Of those 12 conversions, nine came via pass plays and another came on a scramble by Ryan.

Part of Atlanta’s success was an up-tempo attack, featuring a steady mix of no-huddle calls, which quickly wore down Baltimore defenders. By late in the first quarter, some Baltimore defensive players were looking for the oxygen tanks.

“I don’t know if it was that we just played Sunday, but I was tired,” said defensive tackle Haloti Ngata(notes), whose sentiments were echoed by Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson(notes). “They did a good job of keeping the tempo up. I’ve just got to be ready for it.”

While teammates admitted to fatigue, Ed Reed(notes) brushed off any sense of concern.

“Those stats are for you all to worry about. We only worry about one stat – wins,” Reed said, who later yelled out jokingly to a teammate, “Just admit it, we gave it away.”

And Ryan – with season highs in completions (32), attempts (50) and yards (321) plus three touchdown passes – certainly was in a taking mood. The Falcons basically put the game in his hands, not even pretending to establish the run (the Falcons finished with 23 carries).

Yet, getting picked apart by a third-year passer didn’t seem to bother Reed.

“Naw, we’ve seen that lots of time, even from the start of games,” Reed said. “We had Peyton Manning(notes) do that to us once.”

OK, that’s Manning. While Ryan deserves a lot of credit for his rapid development, the fact is that he’s a long way from being on the same level as Manning. Right now, however, Baltimore is getting attacked by every level of quarterback.

One of the reasons is obvious: Injuries have left the Ravens ridiculously thin at cornerback. The Falcons went right after second-year corner Lardarius Webb(notes) and then challenged Wilson, who was picked up in training camp from Seattle, on the game-winner.

“I knew they were coming after me,” said Webb, who also fumbled a punt return in the first half and was visibly disappointed. “I didn’t have anything close to the kind of game I expected. This isn’t what I worked so hard on all week to do.”

White and Ryan celebrate their game-winning connection.
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

As for Wilson, the final touchdown was the defining moment. Facing a first down from the Baltimore 33-yard line with 27 seconds remaining, the Falcons were down 21-20 and hoping to at least get in better position for a field goal. Instead, they delivered the knockout punch.

Wide receiver Roddy White(notes), who continued his Pro Bowl-caliber season with 12 catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns, ran right at Wilson. At approximately the 20-yard line, White made contact with Wilson. The replay didn’t show exactly what White did, but there was little question he hit Wilson hard enough to knock him down, a play that easily could have been called offensive pass interference.

Ryan then tossed to the suddenly wide-open White, who carried it the rest of the way for the go-ahead score. Wilson ran to the official, waving his arms in the air in dismay, but got no sympathy and no flag for his complaint.

“It is what it is,” Wilson said after the game, declining to repeat what he said to the official.

While the White-Wilson play was debated long into the night, what’s clear is that the exploitation of Baltimore’s leaky defense isn’t going to stop. On Atlanta’s first touchdown, running back Jason Snelling(notes) got free for a 28-yard score against a busted coverage. White’s first touchdown – a 4-yard catch early in the fourth quarter – came on a bread-and-butter play the Falcons run all the time. Nonetheless, it was barely contested by Baltimore.

In short, this is not what the football world has come to expect of the Ravens, who allowed no more than 17 points in each of their first five contests. At 6-3, they still have the look of a playoff team, but it may be tight in the AFC. At 7-2, the Falcons look like a team that could easily post 12 wins and grab a top seed in the NFC.

“This was definitely a playoff atmosphere,” Reed said. “Hopefully, we see those guys in Dallas.”

That would be the Super Bowl. At this rate – and with this pass defense – it’s hard envisioning that scenario.

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Nov 12, 2010