Can the Baltimore Ravens Contend for Another Title Without a Juggernaut Defense?

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVSeptember 6, 2013

This happened to Corey Graham and other members of the Ravens defense repeatedly on Thursday night.
This happened to Corey Graham and other members of the Ravens defense repeatedly on Thursday night.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The first regular-season game of the 2013 NFL season has come and gone, and the reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens have already fallen, losing to the Denver Broncos, 49-27.

The Ravens spent the offseason between winning the Super Bowl and this Week 1 2013 kickoff revamping their defense, allowing veterans like safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard, linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger, and cornerback Cary Williams move on to other teams. 

Though they acquired suitable players from their own roster and from the outside to fill these vacancies—safeties James Ihedigbo, Michael Huff and Matt Elam, linebackers Elvis Dumervil, Josh Bynes and Daryl Smith, and cornerbacks Corey Graham and Jimmy Smith, it wasn't enough to best the Broncos on Thursday.

The first half of the game went well enough for Baltimore, as it established a 17-14 lead by halftime, but the final 30 minutes of play were a nightmare for the Ravens. Denver scored 35 points in that span—to the Ravens' 10—while Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning took advantage of lapses in coverage to throw a record-tying seven touchdowns by the time the game had wrapped.

This is a new-look Ravens defense to be sure, but if this is the look they are to have all season, it's not a flattering one. And it's a far cry from the defense they've boasted for over a decade, one that has defined what it means to both stop the run and shut down the quarterback.

The major problem for the Ravens is that it wasn't their entire defense that collapsed. Rather, it was a mere four players that doomed Baltimore on Thursday night: Bynes, Graham, Smith and Huff—all in coverage. Nose tackle Haloti Ngata, linebacker Terrell Suggs and cornerback Lardarius Webb, in particular, played exceedingly well.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Smith was responsible for a 27-yard reception by Broncos receiver Eric Decker and the lone, 28-yard catch by Broncos receiver Andre Caldwell that resulted in a touchdown. Graham, a standout at corner last year after spending the majority of his career on special teams, gave up three touchdowns—two to Wes Welker and one to Demaryius Thomas—and allowed catches on seven of the nine passes thrown his way.

Huff was abused by Manning and the Denver receivers so frequently, he was eventually benched in favor of Elam. All five passes thrown his direction were caught—one by Demaryius Thomas for a 78-yard score, one for 12 yards by Wes Welker, and three by tight end Julius Thomas for two scores—for 181 yards, three touchdowns and 115 yards after the catch. 

Even the half-speed Reed from 2012 wouldn't have given up so many yards and scores in coverage.

Bynes was four for four on passes thrown his direction—one each to Decker, Knowshon Moreno, Ronnie Hillman and the tight end Thomas. While he didn't give up a touchdown, the four passes totaled 51 receiving yards for Denver, plus 32 yards after the catch. 

With coverage like that, it's no wonder Manning was able to throw seven touchdowns and have 462 receiving yards. It's clearly not a sustainable situation for Baltimore.

On a positive note, however, it's also not likely that blown coverage such as this will again result in seven passes being scored against them—perhaps ever again. This is Manning, of course, and his bevy of weapons. 

Further, the Ravens put up 27 points in this game, an amount that in many cases will be enough to win games. 

However, Manning and Co. put in stark relief just how thin things are for Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense. 

If this defense is going to continue to struggle as it works to develop chemistry and as the team as a whole figures out who and what works best at many positions, then the offense must step up to cover for these deficiencies. However, they need to do this quickly and it cannot fail to come together as it did on Thursday night. 

With receiver and returner Jacoby Jones knocked out with a knee sprain, the Ravens had to turn to rookie receiver Marlon Brown. Brown, however, wasn't the problem—instead, it was the replacements for injured tight end Dennis Pitta who cost the Ravens offense the most. 

Pro Football Focus credits tight ends Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark with three drops between them, but that's likely being generous. On their 17 combined targets (12 for Clark, five for Dickson) they caught but eight of them (Dickson with one, for 13 yards). The lack of communication between Flacco and the tight ends, in particular, kept them from achieving a second-half first down until nearly two minutes were left in the third quarter.

With such a big and ever-increasing points deficit, the Ravens passed the ball a lot—Flacco threw 62 times—but without reliable receivers on the other end of those passes, the Ravens fell short. The absences of Pitta and Boldin were clearer than ever in this loss, and there's not a lot of time to turn these problems around.

If there's one reason to feel optimistic, it's that Dickson was rusty in the season opener, having missed most of training camp and all of the preseason with a partially torn hamstring. His rapport with Flacco needs work, and that's something that can build now that he's able to practice in full. 

And even if Jones' injury lingers for a week or longer, Brown—with his four catches on six targets for 65 yards and a score—seems to indicate the Ravens have a young, emerging talent on their hands. 

The Ravens aren't likely to find themselves so desperately behind every offense they face this year, which also means that the run game led by Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce will get more opportunities than the combined 21 carries between the two on Thursday. Rice's value in the passing game also cannot be understated—he had eight catches on 11 targets for 35 yards.

Simply, if the Ravens defense—particularly in coverage—keeps performing this way, than the offense must get better. If the offense cannot find a rhythm, though, then the defense must step up, beyond the front seven.

Baltimore cannot hope to successfully defend its Super Bowl title or make the playoffs with both its coverage and passing game continuing to perform as they did against Denver.