Hey NinersNation, I’m Rao: A longtime 49ers fan and Bay Area expat in DC who is forced to suffer through Singletary-less football games every Sunday. As a part of Fooch’s quest to dominate the football blogosphere, I’ll be writing weekly feature stories on important issues around the league and why we, as Niners fans, should care. First up: Why the Baltimore defense is falling apart, and what we can learn from it.
After a three game losing streak, the Baltimore Ravens are going through a bye week identity crisis. For ten years, the Ravens have known exactly who they were: A physical, smash mouth defense, led by Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, that dragged its offense along for the ride – basically what the 49ers aspire to be in coming years, if not later this season. After years of waiting, however, their offense finally came together in 2008, and this season had Ravens’ fans talking dynasties and superbowls. But a funny thing happened in the first six weeks of the season: the heralded Baltimore defense forgot to show up.
Make no mistake, the 2009 Baltimore defense is not the squad that it once was. The Ravens last year ranked in the top 3 in total defense, pass yards allowed, and running yards allowed, but this year they are averaging a mediocre 333 yards allowed per game. Opposing quarterbacks are posting a 63% completion rate and an 89 point passer rating on average against the Ravens, which would have been impossible in 2008. That year, the Ravens only allowed four teams to score more than 24 points against them – a number that has already been matched this season. So what's going on here?
A third-rate secondary. The unit’s clearest problem is their back end: Specifically, their inability to cover anyone. The team has allowed 242 yards per game in the air, ranking them 22nd in the league, and only five teams have allowed more plays of 20+ yards. Sure, Baltimore has played teams with good passing games, but they make questionable receivers look like superstars – no one can excuse allowing Vikings WR Sidney Rice a 176 yard game. With the loss of veteran cornerback Samari Rolle in the offseason, the Ravens have the untested CBs struggling in the position and instead of making big plays, they have a penchant for giving them up. The Ravens have already allowed 6 passes of 40 yards or more, matching their total for the entire 2008 season. This is a unit that is constantly tested by opponents and fails miserably – as Baltimore Beatdown blogger Bruce Raffel colorfully put it, "Our cornerbacks couldn't cover a sleeping homeless guy with a blanket."
It all starts with the front office. To some extent, these problems are a result of poor management decisions: Two big offseason acquisitions, CB Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr, have so far seemed to be busts. Nickel back Carr, particularly, has been repeatedly beaten in obvious passing situations, like when Cincinnati’s Andre Caldwell torched him for the game winning touchdown in week 5. Some blame can be passed on to the coaching staff as well: New defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, replacing defensive genius Rex Ryan, lacks the former’s knack for creative blitzing schemes and has instituted a more vanilla defense.
"Veteran" sometimes just means old. But secondary play this bad can’t just be caused by suspect play calling or a few bad players. The more likely reason: The Baltimore defense is finally showing signs of its age all around. ILB Ray Lewis is entering his 14th season, and lacks the speed and instinct he once had; FootballOutsiders argued he’s not even in the top 10 LB’s in the league anymore, and his play has unquestionable suffered this season. Fellow linebackers Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson have also slowed with time, hurting their ability to cover the middle of the field effectively and putting even more pressure on the strugging secondary. This front seven is still solid – they rank sixth against the running game with 3.5 yards per carry, and 11th in sacks – but its no longer as dominant as it once was, and it can’t make up for the team’s questionable back end play in the way it did in 2008. This is a unit that got its hands on one of every four passes thrown last season, and ranked number 1 on fourth down. Those numbers have returned to Earth in 2008, and the secondary is paying the price for it.
The house always wins. Some would argue that the unit is salvaged by the freakishly effective strong safety Ed Reed. In all fairness, he can always be counted on to come up with a big play at least once a week, like his spectacular forced fumble in week 5. But the reason he is so successful is because he takes risks – playing receivers close and jumping routes to come up with big interceptions – and gamblers always lose in the long run. When this team had an elite pass rush, like it did in 2006, such tactics made sense, since quarterbacks were too busy avoiding Ray Lewis to play chess games with Baltimore’s secondary. Those days are over now, and Ed Reed’s aggressive style of play is as likely to lead to big plays for the other team as quarterbacks have more time in the pocket.
Whether it’s because of their aging stars, poor game planning, or just bad play, the Ravens defense this season seems like it won’t be the juggernaut it once was. Their season could still be salvaged on the shoulders of Joe Flacco, but, as of now, they sit in third place in the NFC North with the Colts, Broncos, and two games against the Steelers still on the schedule. What does this mean to us Niners fans? Outside of one less team to fear in the playoffs, it’s a warning that solid defense doesn’t last forever. The difference between a great defense and a mediocre one isn’t big in the NFL, and as Baltimore’s struggles show, defensive dynasties are quickly destroyed by age and injury. Every year with a struggling offense is another year our defense gets older and closer to mediocrity. So here’s hoping it doesn’t take until Patrick Willis’ 14th season for the 49ers to find their own Joe Flacco.