Ravens defense restoring tradition, still seeking improvement

For all of the negative trends and causes for concern during the first half of the season, there’s one area the team is definitely making its money.

The overhauled Ravens defense might have hit some bumps, especially against the run, but even after undergoing so much change in the offseason, the unit begins the second half as one of the top 10 in the NFL.

Baltimore ranks 10th in total defense (339.5 yards allowed per game), 10th in points permitted (21.5 per game) and eighth against the run (100.4 ypg). The Ravens also stand fourth in third-down percentage (33.3) and second in red-zone defense, letting opponents score touchdowns just 31.8 percent of the time they cross the 20.

That’s quite impressive considering the team turned over a good chunk of the unit with Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Dannell Ellerbe, Bernard Pollard, Paul Kruger and Cary Williams gone, and Elvis Dumervil, Daryl Smith, Chris Canty and Matt Elam among those coming aboard.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees wishes that success would result in more wins, but he’s pleased with much of what he has seen.

“When we look back, it’s funny, we talked about this last year at this time; after eight games we were 6-2 and statistically terrible. And now we are in the top 10 in about every category, but we’re 3-5,” Pees said. “I’d rather take the 6-2 and be crappy. But not really. I’d like to be 6-2 and good in stats - both. But we’ve worked hard to get in the top 10 in almost all the stats, except the three areas that we have really got to improve in.

“We’ve got to improve in getting off the field in two-minute (situations). And it’s not always necessarily a fast two-minute, like they’re behind. It’s tied or they’re ahead and we’ve got to get the ball back for the offense to have an opportunity. We haven’t done that, and we’ve got to get better in that area.

“No. 2, we’ve got to get better in the turnover area. And the third area is just not giving up big plays. We still are giving up (big plays). We had some missed tackles in the last game and then gave up a couple big plays. So I’m proud of the progress that we’ve made in those other areas. I like being ranked in the top 10 in all those areas, but also to win games, you’ve got to finish. And we haven’t done as good a job as we need to do in that area. And turnovers would be a big part of that, too.”

As Pees said, the Ravens’ main problem on defense has been getting off the field at some key moments during the three-game skid.

Against Green Bay on Oct. 13, Baltimore let the Packers eat 7:35 off the clock in the fourth quarter en route to driving for the eventual winning field goal. The Packers also were able to drain the last 2:04 to end the game.

On Oct. 20, the Steelers put together a drive that lasted 8:03 in the third quarter and then drove for the winning field goal at the end, erasing the last two minutes off the clock.

Then last week at Cleveland, the Ravens let the Browns hold the ball for 6:30 late in the fourth quarter, a possession that was capped by an insurance field goal and left Baltimore with just 14 seconds.

“A lot of those last drives are just little mistakes, or just like you said, we haven’t been able to finish, and that’s the thing is just not finishing the game,” defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. “If we could just give our offense a chance to get back out there and score, or get some type of points, then some of these close games would be different.”

Said linebacker Terrell Suggs: “It’s always frustrating. You’ve got to win games. They’re on scholarship, too, so to say - the opposing team - and they’re making plays. It’s just one of those things. You’ve just got to get after it and do it.”

The other major issue for the defense is it isn’t forcing turnovers. Baltimore has a minus-3 turnover differential, which is tied for 21st in the league. Traditionally, that hasn’t been a concern, as the team’s plus-38 differential since 2008 is third-best in the NFL.

But the Ravens have just 10 takeaways in eight games and are on pace for 20 this season. The team’s previous season low since 2000 was 23 in 2007, when Baltimore went 5-11.

Pees points to the fact that the Ravens are doing well punching the ball out, forcing 13 fumbles so far. But they’re having difficulty recovering them, coming up with just six.

“So there have been some opportunities there, we just haven’t gotten them,” he said. “As far as the picks and interceptions, we’ve gotten a lot of sacks, but we just haven’t made as many good plays on the ball as we should. And a little bit of that is we’ve played a little bit more man coverage. You’re not going to have as many interceptions when you play man as you are when you play zone. And part of the reason we’ve played man is if you hold the ball a little longer, we have some pretty good pass rushers.

“So there’s both. We need to do better when we are in zone and when we do get our hands on the ball. And sometimes we’re just a little tentative. I think that’s a little bit of our problem at the end of the game. And we’ve talked about it a lot this week. You’ve just got to go for it. You’ve got to go. You’ve got to feel good enough about yourself that you don’t worry about making a mistake. ...

“I just feel that’s our job. It’s our job to go in, and if something happens in the game and there’s a sudden change, it’s our job to go in and stop them no matter where the ball is. We just need to create turnovers. It’s not geared towards giving the offense more opportunities - that certainly would - it’s just more geared towards that’s what we’re paid to do, and we just need to get it done.”

The Ravens head into Sunday’s visit from Cincinnati in third place in the AFC North, 2 1/2 games behind the first-place Bengals.

Suggs’ called the Ravens’ situation “DEFCON 5,” and said it was pretty critical that the team snaps its skid with this week. A slightly looser coach John Harbaugh isn’t ready to put the entire season on one game.

“It won’t end our season mathematically, nor will it end our season,” Harbaugh said. “In the playoffs. it is winner go home. In the regular season, it’s win or lose and play next week. So, we get that. We have a sense of urgency, but we always do. It’s not like the sense of urgency is heightened. If our record was more what it was last year - we had a huge sense of urgency last year - and if you remember the questions were coming hard, fast and furious last year about what we were doing and where we were at.

“I don’t sense any different sense of urgency from you guys, even than last year, when I look back on it. The dynamic doesn’t change that way. We’re kind of in a corner, but you’re always in a corner. And how we handle it will be what’s remembered, not the adversity we go through. That’s how life is. We all face circumstances. It’s how you handle it that’s going to be remembered.”

The Ravens are in this situation almost in spite of their defense, so the fact that it’s a top-10 unit doesn’t impress Suggs.

“That’s just the ranking. That doesn’t really matter to us,” he said. “The big picture is that we’re 3-5, and we don’t like that. We don’t like the feeling. (The ranking) doesn’t matter. It doesn’t feel well. Ask me after we’ve got a couple wins. You can ask me the same question, I can have a more accurate answer for you. But as for right now, we’ve got to get this W.”