Early in the season when the Ravens were blowing out opponents — if an NFC South team qualifies as an opponent — the secondary play didn't seem all too bad. Of course, pressure from a talented front seven can often mask deficiencies in the back, which appears to be the case in hindsight.
The Ravens were finally exposed in a big way against the Steelers. A big chunk of that is the fact they were without cornerback Jimmy Smith for the time being and playing with a depleted group of corners. Corners and safeties have been rotated in and out in various packages, which seems like a great idea in theory when the personnel is sub-par. But nine games in, it's fairly easy to figure out which roles players have.
When Matt Elam is playing the nickel spot, they're most likely in a run defense. When Chykie Brown comes in, they're defending the pass, with Brown being a huge liability teams will often target. Little things like that are easy for any NFL quarterback to pick up on, which contributed to Ben Roethlisberger's big day in the Steelers' 43-23 win over Baltimore.
The Ravens need to make some major adjustments in the back end. But the problem the coaching staff faces is that the personnel back there is the worst in the seven years John Harbaugh has been at the helm.
"We have to look at what we're doing scheme-wise, look at what we're doing technique-wise. We have to play better technique," Harbaugh said during his press conference on Monday. "We're not disciplined back there in technique like we need to be. Our eyes aren't in the right spot all the time like they need to be. And when you're in the back end — just like in the offensive line — your footwork has to be right, your eyes have to be right, your leverage has to be right, and then you have to play the ball well. We had one time where we were in great position and we misplayed the ball, and then we didn't tackle."
Even when Smith comes back — and the Ravens will hope he's back by the Week 12 game against New Orleans — safety play still needs to be addressed. Will Hill had a poor game against Pittsburgh. Darian Stewart wouldn't start on at least 80 percent of teams in the NFL. Jeromy Miles and Brynden Trawick are fine special teams players but not ideal contributors on defense. Terrence Brooks went from being a potential starter to the doghouse as he was a healthy scratch this past Sunday. This team has plenty of players listed as safeties. Not one has emerged as an NFL-caliber safety.
The Ravens need some answers in the secondary. Fortunately for the unit, the Titans shouldn't pose the kind of threat in the passing game that Pittsburgh presented. Then a bye week follows. In those two weeks, plus the week leading up to the Monday Night Football meeting against the Saints in Week 12, the Ravens will need to figure out how to adjust to the current issues facing the team. And it's something Harbaugh himself is still trying to tinker with at the moment.
"We're looking for the right combination, but I think that's a little overrated. I think it's the best players," Harbaugh said. "You want to play in that secondary? Step up and practice and play well and step up in the game and make plays and be in the right spot. And that's what we're looking for guys to do."