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Midseason report: Broken down defense

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Midseason report: Broken down defense

For a team that's 5-2, there's a lot wrong with the Ravens heading into this bye week.

Particularly the defense, which uncharacteristically ranks 26th in yardage allowed by giving up exactly 400 per game. That's worst among teams with records .500 and above.

The run defense allowed 181 yards in Sunday's 30-point loss to the Houston Texans. In two games before that, the Ravens allowed 441 yards on the ground, including a franchise-record 227 to the Dallas Cowboys.

It's an astounding figure, and as the NFL season continues the games will only get tougher as the Ravens start going on the road -- where they're 1-2 and especially troubled -- after the bye.

Three of the next four games for the Ravens are away, starting with the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 4, are away from home. They'll face Trent Richardson (Browns), Darren McFadden (Raiders), Jonathan Dwyer (Steelers) and Ryan Matthews (Chargers).

Coach John Harbaugh believes he has all the pieces he needs to be successful this season, but if his overall defense is to improve this is what needs fixing:

Get ahead early in the count: In other words force the opposing offense into predictable passing situations on second and third downs by doing better on first down. Early in the season the issue was "chunk" plays, giving up gains of 20-yards or more, that led to the Ravens' downfall in a 24-23 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. In that game, they gave up nine "chunk" plays. Since then, they've prevented the likes of Jamaal Charles, DeMarco Murray and Arian Foster from having huge gains but they haven't stopped them either. Instead, teams are marching methodically, wearing out the defense and chewing up the clock. In the 31-29 win vs. the Cowboys, the defense wasn't able to get off the field as it allowed Tony Romo to lead an 18-play drive.

Tightening up coverage: Until CB Jimmy Smith, the replacement for Lardarius Webb (ACL tear), can prove he's not vulnerable on the deep routes, teams will continually go after him. Smith is just a second-year player, but he has been beaten badly on double moves. Texans QB Matt Schaub went after him immediately, got an early lead, then went to Foster to grind out the game. This gameplan could become painfully familiar.

Upgrade rush: There hasn't been much of one from DE Pernell McPhee, who indicated early in the season he had been slowed by injuries. He has only one-half sack from the edge through seven games. He had six last season as a rookie. His backup Arthur Jones hasn't produced either. The front seven aren't getting much push off the snap to create uncomfortable pockets for quarterbacks, either.  So it's not simply a problem with McPhee and Jones. Their lack of production is just the tip of the iceberg. Better pressure up front would help Smith and company in the secondary.

Shaping up Suggs: That's where Terrell Suggs, aka T-Sizzle, comes in. He played an amazing 44 snaps in his first game of the season last week, so he'll undoubtedly be better as he rounds into top shape. He's clearly about 15 pounds heavier since an Achilles tear kept him out since April.  His return has given the Ravens a boost of confidence, even though it didn't show on the scoreboard in the Texans game. Also, LB Ray Lewis is expected to be around the team soon after he had surgery to fix a torn triceps that ended his season.

Ball control: This is a matter for the offense, but it can assist the defense by not leaving them on the field for prolonged periods. The Ravens are last in the NFL in time of possession at just 26 minutes per game. And at times, such as vs. the Eagles when the defense forced them into four turnovers, it wilted because of fatigue. The offense couldn't get first downs and extend drives. This defense needs all the help it can get until it finds its away again. The hurry-up offense needs to slow down, use RB Ray Rice more, milk the clock and give this defense a cushion to play with. It's a much better group when playing ahead.

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Peter King awards two Ravens with weekly honors for defensive performance vs. Titans

Peter King awards two Ravens with weekly honors for defensive performance vs. Titans

The Baltimore Ravens' Week 6 dominate performance over the Tennessee Titans is gaining national attention. 

A historic game that displayed the offense and defense firing on all cylinders, it's hard to pinpoint who had the biggest impact. 

So in his latest edition of Football Morning in America, NBC Sports' Peter King awarded not one, but two Ravens with weekly honors.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Za'Darius Smith

Against the Titans, Smith led the Ravens defense with three sacks and five tackles in their historic 11-sack game. On of three Defensive Players of the Week, King explained why Smith's performance stood out.

In the most dominant defensive performance of this ultra-offensive season, the Ravens shut out Tennessee 21-0 and had 11 sacks. Another one of GM Ozzie Newsome’s draft gifts that keeps on giving, Smith (2015, round four, Kentucky) contributed three sacks of Marcus Mariota and five tackles in a virtuoso game. Net passing yards for Mariota: 51.

Smith, who's entering the final year of his rookie NFL contract, has shown over six games he deserves to get paid in the offseason. So far this season the 26-year-old has 20 combined tackles, 5.5 sacks and one forced fumble. 

COACH OF THE WEEK: Don "Wink" Martindale

In his first season as defensive coordinator, Don "Wink" Martindale has seamlessly made the transition from linebackers coach to leading the NFL's No. 1 scoring defense (12.8). But what impressed King the most from the 21-0 shutout was how Martindale's squad got to Mariota from every direction. 

When a unit records more sacks (11) than completions allowed (10), the leader gets an award. Those are the rules. Martindale’s pass rushers got to Marcus Mariota every possible way—up the middle, around the edges, in the pocket, on bootlegs, you name it. The total set a new franchise record and was one short of the single-game NFL mark of 12. And it came with a familiar face watching: Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees used to hold the same position in Baltimore. Shout out to the Ravens social media team for renaming the account RavenSSSSSSSSSSS, one ‘S’ for each sack.

This Ravens defense, who has always been known for its dominance, is ranked first in points allowed (12.8), first in yards allowed (270.8), second in passing yards allowed (188.0) and third in rushing yards allowed (82.8) heading into Week 7. In addition, they have yet to surrender a second half touchdown all season. Trusting of the talent this roster holds, the respect "Wink" has for his players is equally reciprocated. 

"It was really emotional when they told us we had 11 sacks," linebacker Patrick Onwuasor said postgame. "We just went out there and we were like, ‘We have to get Coach Wink . We have to put the Gatorade on him.’ So, we tried to turn him around so he couldn’t see it coming, and we had to get him real good."

Martindale will now face the No. 1 scoring offense in the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. 

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Baltimore Ravens Week 6 awards after shutout win over Titans

Baltimore Ravens Week 6 awards after shutout win over Titans

The Baltimore Ravens went into the Tennessee Titans' home and completely robbed them in a 21-0 shutout win.

Here are the players and plays that stood out from the afternoon.

PLAYER(S) OF THE GAME: Ravens Defense

The Ravens defense had a historic afternoon recording a franchise-record 11 sacks. Yup, you read that right. 11 sacks.

Za'Darius Smith led the way with three, followed by Patrick Onwuasor with two and Matthew Judon, Terrell Suggs, Tony Jefferson, Kenny Young, Anthony Levine Sr. and Chris Wormley with one apiece. The 11 sacks tied for the second most by a team in league history and the most in a game since 2012.  It was so historic, the Ravens changed their Twitter name to included 11 S's. 

But that wasn't the only impressive part of the Ravens' afternoon. Marcus Mariota was limited to 10 completions and the defense allowed just 51 passing yards  —  the fewest in franchise history  — and 55 rushing yards. The Titans finished the afternoon 1-for-10 on third down as well.

With the shutout, the Ravens defense cemented its place as one of the NFL's most elite units in 2018. A win that must have been extra sweet after a 12-9 overtime loss to the Browns the week prior and with former defensive coordinator Dean Pees staring back from the opposite sideline. The Ravens remain the only NFL team to not allow a second-half touchdown this season. 

COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE GAME: Michael Crabtree

After dropping what would have been the game-winning touchdown Week 5 against the Browns, Michael Crabtree said his priority this week was to get back into the lab and correct his mistakes. Out the gate, the veteran receiver stayed true to his word finishing the Ravens' first drive catching three passes for 52 yards and one touchdown. Earlier in the week, Joe Flacco had faith his receiver would get over the hump of six drops in five games and was willing to stand by him until it happened.

"Besides just trying to give him the confidence that, you know, I'm still going his way when he calls for it and I still believe that it's going to be the difference...it's something that he'll definitely get over," Flacco said.

The patience worked as Crabtree finished the day with six receptions for 93 yards and one touchdown leading all Ravens receivers.

But more importantly, the relationship between Crabtree and Flacco continues to grow.

"That’s trust. That’s what you need in football, you know," Crabtree said postgame. "Quarterback, receiver relationship. It’s only going to get better. It’s all about how much time you put in, how much work you put in. I’m new; this is my first year here so I got to do what I got to do."

STAT OF THE GAME: Flacco makes his way into the history books

With 25 completions Sunday against the Titans, Flacco became the third different quarterback in NFL history to complete 25 or more passes in nine consecutive games, per the NFL's communication department. Drew Brees sits atop the list with 11 and 10 consecutive games followed by Peyton Manning with nine. Flacco finished the 21-0 win 25-for-37 with 238 yards, one touchdown and one interception. 

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