Ravens' elite defense gets exposed

December, 19, 2011
12/19/11
2:00
AM ET
Ryan MatthewsDonald Miralle/Getty ImagesBaltimore's defense gave up 415 yards of total offense and four touchdowns.
SAN DIEGO -- The Baltimore Ravens potentially lost a chance at the AFC North title, a home playoff game and a first-round bye. Perhaps more disturbing of all is that Baltimore lost its aura of dominance on defense for a night.

The 34-14 loss to the San Diego Chargers on Sunday was a beatdown. It was an embarrassment on national television. And it might be a blueprint on how to make an outstanding defense look ordinary.

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers got rid of the ball quickly and decisively. He attacked downfield, which had the NFL's No. 3 defense backpedalling from the opening drive and never let the pass rush dig in against him.

Every time you asked a Ravens coach or player about how a proud defense got humbled, the answer was always the same: a veteran quarterback. It's the veteran quarterbacks who know how to shift protection. It's the veteran quarterbacks who know how to avoid getting hit.

The Ravens thrive on getting to the quarterback, leading the NFL in sacks. When Baltimore's rushers can't get their hands on the quarterback, the game often falls out of their grasp.

In 10 wins, the Ravens have 40 sacks. In four losses, there's only been five sacks. And in Sunday night's game against Rivers, Baltimore's pass rush was shut out.

"It’s a reality check," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "You don’t show up to play in big games, you’re going to get your [butt] whipped."

The reality check is maybe the Ravens will have trouble beating veteran quarterbacks. That's not to say they haven't. Baltimore swept the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger this season, but he's known for holding onto the ball to make plays.

The Ravens lost at Tennessee when they couldn't sack Matt Hasselbeck, and the result was the same when they failed to hit Rivers.

Outside of Roethlisberger, look at the quarterbacks that the Ravens have beaten: Sam Bradford, Mark Sanchez, Matt Schaub (without Andre Johnson), Kevin Kolb, Andy Dalton, Alex Smith, Colt McCoy and Dan Orlovsky.

What happens if the Ravens have to face Tom Brady in the playoffs? Or Aaron Rodgers in the Super Bowl? Or even Rivers again in the postseason?

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rivers completed 7 of 8 passes for 139 yards when the Ravens rushed a defensive back, the most yards Rivers has thrown for against the blitz over the last two seasons. It is also the second-most yards the Ravens have given up this year with secondary pressure.

"Philip Rivers deserves a lot of credit for that. He's a veteran quarterback," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He knows how to get his protections organized. That's something these top guys do really well and he did that really well tonight."

The Chargers focused their protection on Suggs, who has been one of the most dominant defenders in the NFL. By always putting two blockers on him, Suggs wasn't a leading contender for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He became the invisible man. The only evidence that Suggs played was his penalty for a head slap.

"When we did get there, he got the ball off," Suggs said. "He’s a veteran quarterback, he’s a great quarterback. Like I said, I just pray we get another chance to see him."

If the Ravens do meet Rivers and the Chargers in the playoffs, they had better make sure he doesn't have time to throw because the Baltimore secondary couldn't cover the Chargers' receivers.

The Ravens were hampered by a toe injury to Lardarius Webb, the team's best cornerback who didn't practice all week. That meant starting rookie first-round cornerback Jimmy Smith with Cary Williams.

Both Smith and Williams spent most of the game chasing Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd downfield. Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed seemed hesitant all night because it looked like all the Ravens were playing the same coverage.

"Whether you have guys hobbled or not, it's difficult," Harbaugh said. "They match up well against every group of defensive backs in the league. That's a tough challenge. That's why the Chargers are so dangerous on offense."

The Ravens allowed the Chargers to score on their first five drives. According to NBC, that's the first time this has ever happened to a franchise that has been defined by defense.

Baltimore couldn't stop San Diego on third downs. The Chargers converted 6 of 10 third downs as they put together scoring drives of 74, 80, 80 and 89 yards.

And the Ravens never forced the Chargers to punt.

"They made plays and we didn’t," said Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, who stood with his right foot in a bucket of ice for his injured toe. "They had a game plan and they wanted to throw the ball. I was talking to Jimmy and he gets to understand that when you get veteran quarterbacks how they manipulate certain things and that’s the learning curve."

What the Ravens have to learn is how much these losses on the road hurt them, especially in December. Baltimore secured a playoff berth for the fourth straight season even before kickoff, but there's more on the line for the Ravens than that.

If the Steelers win at San Francisco, the Ravens fall one game back for the AFC North title as well as a first-round bye. The Ravens, who so often put pressure on the quarterback, now have put the pressure on themselves for the final two weeks of the regular season.

"Championship teams get on the road and keep playing. They peak. They don’t’ take a step back," Suggs said. "Now, we can either hope it ends in our favor or go on an amazing run."

Jamison Hensley

ESPN Ravens reporter

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