Breaking Down the Baltimore Ravens' Late-Game Defensive Struggles

Shehan Peiris@@shehan_peiris_Correspondent IIIDecember 20, 2013

DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 16: Joseph Fauria #80 of the Detroit Lions gets ready to make the catch on a 14 yard touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford #9 as Daryl Smith #51 of the Baltimore Ravens defends during the fourth quarter of the game at Ford Field on December 16, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. The Ravens defeated the Lions 18-16.  (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Leon Halip/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens defense was dissected by Peyton Manning in Week 1 to the tune of 49 points, 510 total yards of offense and seven touchdowns. Since that game, however, Baltimore has bounced back to become one of the league’s best defenses. The Ravens defense is excellent in every respect, except for one worrying trait: it isn’t clutch.

General manager Ozzie Newsome was second-guessed by NFL “experts” for his fairly drastic overhaul of a Super Bowl-winning defense. As always, Newsome made the right decisions, and the results speak for themselves:

Baltimore's Defensive Excellence
CategoryStatNFL Rank
Yards per Game334.09th
Points per Game19.87th
First Downs2424th
Third-Down Conversion Rate32.43rd
Red Zone TD Percentage42.9%4th
First Downs per Play0.271st
Yards per Rushing Attempt3.85th
Completion Percentage56.9%3rd

The defense has carried a struggling and inept offense for the entire 2013 campaign, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ unit continues to come up short at the end of games. Here’s a quick look at some of the games where the defense has been unable to make key stops and get off the field.

Week 6: vs. Green Bay Packers

Oct 13, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) warms up before the game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports
Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Packers’ Last Drive: Eight plays, 69 yards, 2 minutes and 4 seconds

Result: Ran out the clock

After a miraculous 4th-and-21 completion to Tandon Doss, Joe Flacco found Dallas Clark in the end zone to bring the Ravens within two points. Baltimore had three timeouts and the two-minute warning in its pocket, so one stop would have given the offense a chance to win the game.

The defense forced Green Bay into two third downs on the drive, but couldn’t prevent a conversion on either of them. Aaron Rodgers and Co. were able to take all of the time off the clock and the Ravens offense never got the chance to win the game.

Week 7: at Pittsburgh Steelers

Oct 20, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham (6) kicks the game winning field goal as time expires against the Baltimore Ravens during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 19-16. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeCl
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Steelers’ Last Drive: Seven plays, 39 yards, 1:58

Result: Game-winning field goal

Joe Flacco had just led the offense on a 16-play drive that ended in a game-tying touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, a special teams lapse resulted in a 44-yard return which gave the Steelers the ball on their own 37-yard line.

Needing just a field goal to win, Pittsburgh was able to get to the Baltimore 24-yard line and take all the time off the clock. Kicker Shaun Suisham drilled a 42-yard field goal as time expired to give the Steelers the win.

Week 9: at Cleveland Browns

Sep 15, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Cleveland Browns kicker Billy Cundiff (8) warms up before the game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports
Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Browns’ Last Drive: 15 plays, 67 yards, 6:30

Result: Field goal with 14 seconds left in the game

After a Baltimore punt, the Browns offense took over with 6:44 left in the game and a three-point lead.

Unfortunately, the Ravens defense couldn’t prevent Cleveland from marching down the field—including conversions on third and fourth down—where former Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff connected on a field goal to make it a six-point game.

With 14 seconds left in the game and no timeouts to work with, the Ravens walked off the field defeated.

Week 10: vs. Cincinnati Bengals

BALTIMORE, MD - NOVEMBER 10: Wide receiver A.J. Green #18 of the Cincinnati Bengals catches a batted ball for a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens in the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on November 10, 2013 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Baltimore Rav
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Bengals’ Last Drive of Regulation: Seven plays, 60 yards, 1:28

Result: Game-tying TD

Of course you remember this one. This wasn’t so much the defense giving up a long drive at the end of the game, but one bone-headed play.

Baltimore’s defense had actually done a good job on the drive, forcing Cincinnati into a 3rd-and-15 at midfield, needing a touchdown to win.

It should have been easy for the defense, but James Ihedigbo tipped the Hail Mary pass into the waiting arms of A.J. Green, sending the game into overtime.

Fortunately, the Ravens were able to pull out the win in the extra period, but that doesn’t change the fact that Week 10 provided us with yet another defensive breakdown.

Week 11: at Chicago Bears

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 17:  (L-R) Adam Podlesh #8, Robbie Gould #9 and Dante Rosario #88 of the Chicago Bears celebrate Gould's game-winning 38 yard field goal against the Baltimore Ravens at Soldier Field on November 17, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. The Be
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Bears’ Last Drive in Overtime: Seven plays, 60 yards, 3:38

Result: Game-winning field goal

Justin Tucker’s 21-yard field goal sent the Ravens into overtime for the second consecutive week, but the offense was unable to do anything with the first possession.

That left the Chicago Bears needing just a field goal to win, and the Baltimore defense couldn’t prevent them from driving down the field.

Jay Cutler converted a 3rd-and-9, and then unleashed a 43-yard bomb to Martellus Bennett which got the Bears in field-goal range. Finally, Robbie Gould put Baltimore out of its misery.

Week 13: vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

BALTIMORE, MD - NOVEMBER 28: Defensive back Chykie Brown #23 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates as wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders #88 of the Pittsburgh Steelers sits on the turf after dropping a two point conversion attempt during the closing moments of t
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Steelers’ Last Drive: 13 plays, 79 yards, 4:34

Result: TD but a missed two-point conversion

Justin Tucker’s fifth field goal of the game gave Baltimore an eight-point lead with 5:37 left in the fourth quarter.

Not only could the Ravens not get a stop, but the defense couldn’t keep Pittsburgh out of the end zone. Ben Roethlisberger marched down the field with ease, as the Steelers didn’t face a third down on the drive until they reached the goal line.

Baltimore’s defense did get the stop on that 3rd-and-Goal, but a blown coverage on fourth down resulted in an easy touchdown for Jerricho Cotchery.

The defense did prevent the two-point conversion attempt to Emmanuel Sanders and the Ravens won, but they were incredibly close to giving up the eight-point lead.

Week 14: vs. Minnesota Vikings

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 08:  Running back Toby Gerhart #32 of the Minnesota Vikings runs the ball in for a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on December 8, 2013 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)
Larry French/Getty Images

Viking’s Last Two Drives: Five plays, 147 yards, 1:09

Result: Two TDs that gave Minnesota a temporary lead

This ending was all kinds of crazy, with five touchdowns in the last 125 seconds of action. Baltimore came out on top, but that doesn’t erase the fact that the defense still gave up two big touchdowns that could (and probably should) have won the game for the Vikings.

The Ravens were bailed out by a return touchdown and a brilliant drive orchestrated by Joe Flacco, but this was another instance of the defense completely falling apart near the end of a close game.

Week 15: at Detroit Lions

Dec 16, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions tight end Joseph Fauria (80) makes a touchdown catch will being pressured by Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Daryl Smith (51) during the fourth quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Lions’ Last Drive: 11 plays, 80 yards, 5:45

Result: TD to take the lead

The Week 15 game will always be remembered for Justin Tucker’s spectacular performance, but lost in the splendor of his 61-yard game-winner is the fact that the defenseguess what?gave up a long touchdown drive.

Detroit took over with eight minutes left in the game needing a touchdown to take the lead. A touchdown is what they got.

The Lions started the drive poorly with a holding penalty that backed them up to a 1st-and-20, but Matthew Stafford put together his best drive of the afternoon (6-of-8 for 81 yards and a TD) and found Joseph Fauria in the back of the end zone.

Calvin Johnson couldn’t reel in the two-point conversion, leaving Detroit with a one-point lead that wasn’t safe with Justin Tucker in the building.

What to Make of It All

Oct 20, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh squats on the sidelines against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the second half at Heinz Field. The Steelers won the game, 19-16. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

In the words of Austin Powers, “what does it all mean, Basil?

It’s a very alarming trend that might come back to haunt the Ravens in their quest to make the postseason or in a potential playoff game.

There are other factors at play here, like the offense’s inability to score touchdowns (or score at all). The offense isn’t doing the defense any favors by not giving them a cushion to work with, but at the end of the day this comes down to the defense.

One possible factor that has been thrown around is fatigue. It’s certainly been true that the offense hasn’t been able to sustain drives, so perhaps the defense suffers late in games due to tired legs.

Crunching the numbers from the eight games in question, however, doesn’t really support that theory.

Time of Possession
OpponentOpponent's Time of PossessionOpponent's Time of Possession in Second Half (30 minutes)
Green Bay Packers31:2216:42
Pittsburgh Steelers31:0113:06
Cleveland Browns30:5010:10
Cincinnati Bengals37:5816:12
Chicago Bears30:3816:31
Pittsburgh Steelers30:0413:46
Minnesota Vikings27:4811:02
Detroit Lions32:3517:43

The Cincinnati game was the only one where the defense was on the field for significantly more than half of the game, and even in that game the time of possession battle was relatively even in the second half.

If this were the outcome in only one or two (or even three) games, it wouldn’t be such a big deal but the defense has been “un-clutch” in eight of the last nine games.

Right now, the Ravens have won four games in a row and are starting to emanate the “team of destiny” vibe that they had last year (e.g. 4th-and-29, Mile High Miracle), but it’s never a good idea to rely on good fortune.

At some point, this defense will need to come up with crucial stops just like its predecessor. Or, have the Ravens already forgotten about the goal-line stand in the Super Bowl?

To talk more Ravens or let me know what you think about this topic, you can find me on Twitter.


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