As the Cleveland Browns were driving down the field Thursday at the end of the game against the Baltimore Ravens, fans had to be sitting on the edge of their seats. The Browns could definitely score and send the game to overtime, as the defense had been vulnerable all night.
There was a time when things weren't like this. There was a time when the defense excelled at closing out big wins. There was a time when quarterbacks like Brandon Weeden dreaded facing the Ravens.
Those times are over.
The Ravens are giving up nearly 300 passing yards a game and that number doesn't seem likely to improve.
Their pass rush is neutralized on nearly every snap, and their coverage has been mediocre at best.
In man-coverage, opposing teams can pick on Cary Williams' and Jimmy Smith's stiff hips and lack of quickness, as the Eagles and the Patriots both did. Both Williams and Smith have been playing off the line of scrimmage, and the Ravens have been paying for it by giving up constant quick passes.
When in zone, the Ravens are just as bad. The middle of the field seems to be open at all times, as even the Browns were able to make numerous easy, uncovered catches in the middle of the field last night.
There are no easy fixes to these problems.
Williams and Smith play so far off the ball because they can't make up much ground against faster receivers. The Ravens are sacrificing their ability to defend the short pass to ensure they can defend the long pass.
Williams and Smith both do better work close to the line of scrimmage, though, as Thursday night showed. Williams had a nice game by regularly jamming the opposing receivers at the line. The Ravens need to do more of that.
Concerning the weakness down the middle, the problem has to be the players.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees clearly intends for his linebackers to be in the area, but they never are. They seem to drop back too far, allowing easy 10-yard pitches and catches all game long. That can be improved with coaching, if the Ravens agree it is an area of concern.
Even if they make these changes, though, the Ravens are doomed to mediocrity on defense until they develop a pass rush.
While they have nine sacks through four games, the Ravens have failed to get regular pressure on the quarterback. In particular, the Ravens' edge-rush has been non-existent. Only two of the Ravens' sacks have come from edge-rushers and passers have constantly run out of the pocket with impunity.
The return of Terrell Suggs will certainly help in this regard, but it won't be enough. Courtney Upshaw is being asked to do too much as a pass-rusher, and he hasn't responded well. Upshaw was never an elite pass-rusher in college, as he always relied on his strength more so than his savvy.
That won't work in the NFL, and I don't think Upshaw will ever be a feared pass-rusher.
Even though the Ravens have drafted three outside linebackers early in the draft in recent years, the Ravens need to make this a priority this offseason. Sergio Kindle is a bust, and Paul Kruger and Upshaw both lack the natural explosion necessary to be a feared pass-rusher.
By saying this, I'm essentially giving up on this year's pass rush, and for good reason. Even Brandon Weeden looked good against the Ravens defense, and it was because he had time to throw.
The Ravens defense will be a problem all year. Quarterbacks like Phillip Rivers, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning must be licking their chops at getting a chance against this defense.
This is not to say the Ravens' season is doomed, and the defense still has time to improve. The secondary was improved last night, but they struggled when Weeden had too much time to throw.
The pass rush will improve with the return of Terrell Suggs, as well.
Still, there are too many holes this season, and that guarantees that it will be the offense winning football games in Baltimore this year.