When you mention the name "Baltimore Ravens" to any football fan, the first thing that comes to mind is their hard-hitting defense, led by linebacker Ray Lewis. Since the Super Bowl winning year over a decade ago, the Ravens name has been synonymous with team defense.
However, the first two games of the 2012 regular season might give one pause to become concern that perhaps the glory days of this defense are behind them. Despite being one field goal away from starting the season 2-0, the normally stingy defense has given up huge chunks of yardage in both games.
In the Ravens season-opening 44-13 thrashing of the Cincinnati Bengals, while the defense did contribute four sacks, a forced fumble and Ed Reed's 34-yard TD return off an interception, they also gave up over 300 yards of total offense and their run defense was questionable all game.
Yesterday, in their disappointing 24-23 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the defense surrendered almost 500 yards of offense, including 371 passing yards to QB Michael Vick. While the average yards per rush was low (3.1), they still gave up a combined 115 yards to Vick and RB LeSean McCoy.
However, the scary statistic is that in those 371 passing yards, almost half (157) were contributed by tight end Brent Celek, whose eight receptions were when he was virtually alone downfield with nary a Ravens defender anywhere near him. Whether it was a lack of game-planning or the inability of the Ravens linebackers to cover him, this has got to be a major concern.
Next week, Baltimore faces the New England Patriots, with perhaps one of the best tight ends in the league in Rob Gronkowski. If the Ravens choose to ignore Gronk like they did Celek, Tom Brady will happily forego his other receivers to get him the ball all game long.
Ray Lewis is still one of the best linebackers in the game, as you can ask the opponents he's slammed to the turf over the past two weeks. However, when the opposing quarterback drops back to pass, fans cringe watching him helplessly fail to keep up in coverage. Has the time come to replace him with a better defender on obvious passing downs?
However, Ray Lewis is far from the biggest concern on the defense. While the pass pressure has been a pleasant surprise, the third down conversion rate, especially on third-and-long, is alarming. Vick's 50+ yard pass from his own end zone on third down was a huge play in the game. His 23-yard TD pass found WR Jeremy Maclin so alone in the end zone, it had the Ravens defensive players looking at each other in disbelief.
The injury to strong safety Bernard Pollard has to be a concern, as is the ability for opposing passers to find open receivers due to the cornerbacks playing so far off the receivers as well as the middle of the field being so wide open for the tight ends. With the Patriots next up on the schedule, the team must figure out what to do to stop the trend and plug the leaks that is beginning to put even more pressure on the offense to perform to cover up the defensive issues.