Why the Baltimore Ravens' Championship Hopes Depend on Defense

Drew FrazierContributor IIIDecember 22, 2011

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 18:  Ray Lewis #52 of the Baltimore Ravens looks on against  the San Diego Chargers during their NFL Game on December 18, 2011 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens have definitely had one of the best defenses in the NFL this season: They are second in the league in sacks and in the top three in almost every other relevant statistic.

That’s why it was almost unbelievable that they were so thoroughly beaten by the San Diego Chargers last week.

There were many things going on in that game. It’s easy to sit back and point fingers at the corners, who were clearly struggling, but the facts of the matter are that the loss to the Chargers was a complete defensive meltdown and there aren’t many corners in the league that would have been able to look good in that game.

John Harbaugh said as much at his Monday press conference:

Most any corner in this league would have probably had a tough time last night under the circumstances. That's the first time we've probably gone up against an offense that was clicking that way, all year—first time those guys have seen that caliber of quarterback play. They've seen quarterbacks of that caliber maybe, but not playing that well. Obviously, the Chargers right now are hitting on all cylinders that way.

The fact that the Chargers are hot right now is certainly part of the reason that the Ravens lost by such a wide margin. San Diego has put up 109 points of offense in the last three weeks and shows no signs of slowing down.

But the Ravens are going to need to beat hot teams if they have aspirations at another Super Bowl.

The Chargers' simply playing well and the Ravens corners' playing poorly were two of the main reasons that the Ravens lost, but there were other factors working against Baltimore.

The Chargers were effectively negating the pass rush by chipping the Ravens outside pass-rushers—particularly Terrell Suggs. That gave Rivers time to stand in the pocket and wait for his receivers to come open, and since the receivers were abusing the Ravens corners with double moves and simply beating them to the ball, the Chargers could afford to keep extra players in to block.

Another factor in the loss was the Baltimore offense’s complete inability to manage quick scoring drives.

One thing is very clear after that loss: The Ravens cannot rely on their passing game to win games in tough situations—particularly on the road against decent defenses.

The Ravens have had a few good offensive performances this season that have given the fans hope, but the fact is that Joe Flacco and the passing game cannot take over games. The success of the Ravens offense is predicated on the fact that Ravens defense is able to handle the opposing team’s offense.

We have yet to see a game in which the Ravens defense has been taken advantage of—as they were against the Chargers—and the offense bails them out.

Sure, we’ve seen some nice performances and drives by Flacco and the offense. There have even been games in which Flacco has managed game-winning drives, as he did in Pittsburgh this season.

But in every game in which the offense has managed a good performance, the defense is at least pulling it’s own weight.

The fact is that the Ravens have not shown that they can win games with their offense yet, and that inability is one of the reasons that they have struggled at times this season. They struggled because they tried to rely more on the passing game and the offense, and the more they got away from their running game, which plays to the strength of the defense, the more it became clear that they couldn’t consistently win games like that.

The winning formula for the Ravens has never been clearer: They need to run the ball and play to their defense.

That is obviously fundamental football, and most football coaches would tell you that if you can do that consistently, you’ll win many games. The Ravens certainly have won their share of games this season, but their reliance on the running game isn’t just because they’re trying to stick to the fundamentals. They are forced to ride their running game and defense because they’ve had a hard time winning games with their passing game.

Fortunately for the Ravens, their defense is still very strong, and Ray Rice is hard to stop.

They will win games simply on those two strengths, but as we saw in the Chargers game, the Ravens are going to have a very difficult time beating teams that can exploit their defense.

The Ravens are not a very good team when they’re forced from their game plan of running the ball and playing defense, and it’s clear that they’re going to need to depend on the strength of their defense if they want to win a Super Bowl.

That’s not a bad thing, since their defense has been stellar—for the most part—this season, but they just can’t afford to allow teams to dominate their defense like the Chargers did.

They just don’t have the offensive firepower to win games like that right now.