AFC North: Brandon Flowers

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has taken heavy criticism after the Baltimore Ravens allowed two touchdowns in the final four minutes of Sunday's 34-33 loss to the San Diego Chargers. But general manager Ozzie Newsome and the rest of the Ravens' front office has to take their share of the blame for handcuffing Pees with an undermanned and overwhelmed secondary.

How bad has it become for the Ravens? The Ravens are ranked second-to-last in pass defense (only the Atlanta Falcons are worse) and they're on pace to shatter the franchise record for most passing yards allowed.

Much of the Ravens' struggles in the secondary can be traced back to the team's decisions over the past two years:
  • The Ravens gambled on two cornerbacks developing (Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson) and lost. They put too much faith in a couple of inexperienced cornerbacks to become the No. 3 cornerback, especially with the injury history of starters Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb. Brown was cut earlier this month after getting repeatedly beat, and Jackson went on short-term injured reserve after struggling as well (99th-ranked cornerback by Pro Football Focus).
  • The Ravens didn't sign a proven veteran backup this offseason. It's understandable that the Ravens chose not to retain Corey Graham considering the Buffalo Bills signed him to a four-year, $16 million deal. The mistake was failing to add someone the caliber of Brandon Flowers. The Ravens should've made a big push to get Flowers in June before he signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Chargers. Flowers has three interceptions this season and is currently the fourth-ranked cornerback by Pro Football Focus. The Ravens have since gone through Dominique Franks, Derek Cox and Aaron Ross (injured) with little success.
  • Their drafting at the safety position has not produced immediate results. The Ravens addressed safety with a first-round pick last year (Matt Elam) and a third-rounder this year (Terrence Brooks). That's a major investment for a position that still remains a liability. Elam lost his starting job this season after being the worst coverage safety in the NFL and missing 12 tackles. Brooks has had an up-and-down rookie season and was benched Sunday after giving up a touchdown in New Orleans the previous week. He is not making the same consistent impact as the Ravens' other selections in the first three rounds (linebacker C.J. Mosley, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and tight end Crockett Gillmore).

The Ravens did make some good moves this offseason, signing wide receiver Steve Smith, tight end Owen Daniels and safety Will Hill to bargain deals. They also made the right decision to go with inexperienced Rick Wagner at right tackle.

But the Ravens could tell this summer that the secondary was going to be a major weak spot, and Newsome didn't work his usual magic to add talent there. The season-ending foot injury to Jimmy Smith only underscored the problem.

Pees has tried different combinations to improve the pass defense. The Ravens have started six different cornerbacks and used seven players at safety to no avail.

Now, heading into the final four games of the regular season, the Ravens are going with a struggling Webb (ranks No. 203 out of 214 corners by Pro Football Focus) and converted safety Anthony Levine at cornerback, as well as a constant rotation at safety alongside Hill.

It's easy to rip Pees when the defense gives up 965 yards passing and 61 points the past two games. But you also have to point the finger at Newsome and the front office for the makeshift secondary, which looks like it will be the Ravens' undoing.
Here are some happenings over the weekend for each AFC North team:

RAVENS: Baltimore is preparing for Kansas City's press coverage with cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Stanford Routt. "They had a little bit of a switch from last year," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron told The Baltimore Sun. "It will be interesting to see. I am sure they’ll have some things they’ll change coming into this game. They made a complete switch in their secondary approach."

BENGALS: Miami defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle who spent the past 11 seasons as the Bengals’ secondary coach, isn't surprised by the development of Andrew Hawkins. "But it does scare me because I have to go up against it this week,” Coyle told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “I knew early on that he was going to be a special player. He is a great hard worker, has talent and also has heart and is tough.” Hawkins is third on the team in receptions (15) and second in receiving yards with 247.

STEELERS: Pittsburgh will rotate outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley to avoid any fatigue in the fourth quarter, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazettereports. Harrison and Woodley will be spelled by Chris Carter and Jason Worilds, respectively, as they look to chase down the elusive Michael Vick. "I have to come off," Harrison said. "It's no need being out there, being dog-tired, and not be able to do what's necessary to play the position. You want to stay fresh. You don't want to go out there and play every snap in the first half and come out sluggish in the third and have nothing left in the fourth."

BROWNS: Browns wide receivers Mohamed Massaquoi and Travis Benjamin were ruled out with hamstring injuries by the team after being listed as doubtful on Friday. Greg Little and rookie Josh Gordon will start, according to The Plain Dealer. "I plan to take full advantage of it," Gordon said said.

Delhomme's chances of playing decrease

September, 23, 2010
9/23/10
1:00
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Cleveland Browns (0-2) quarterback Jake Delhomme (ankle) missed his second consecutive day of practice Thursday, which means backup quarterback Seneca Wallace likely will start against the Baltimore Ravens (1-1).

Delhomme hurt his ankle in Cleveland's Week 1 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was in a boot recently and said his ankle is improving. Delhomme hasn't been ruled out, but it's rare for a quarterback to miss most (or all) of practice during the week and play on Sunday.

Wallace has received all of the first-team reps in practice since last week. He threw for 229 yards, one touchdown and one interception in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Wallace's interception was returned 33 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Brandon Flowers.

The Ravens will present a stiff test for Cleveland's offense. Baltimore's defense hasn't allowed a touchdown in two games.

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