Ravens' defense needs to play four quarters

OWINGS MILLS – The NFL became accustomed to the Baltimore Ravens establishing the gold standard for defense over the past decade. Now, the Ravens are transitioning into a still respectable unit that suddenly finds itself vulnerable to potent offenses. Nowhere has that become more evident in the fourth quarter where they've blown eight leads

They narrowly avoided a disastrous ending Monday night against the Houston Texans when cornerback Josh Wilson returned an interception for a touchdown in their 34-28 overtime win. The Ravens managed to surrender a commanding 28-7 lead as the Texans piled up 489 yards of offense and 28 first downs as the 10th-ranked defense allowed quarterback Matt Schaub to pick them apart with drives of 99 and 95 yards to force overtime.

"We've just been kind of inconsistent, and it's cost us," outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "We've been extremely dominant at times, and there have been times we haven't played so well." Despite the defense not being as stingy as previous years like last season when they finished third in the league, the Ravens (9-4) remain in position to make it to the playoffs for the third consecutive year heading into Sunday's game against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. However, whether they're built for a long playoff run remains to be seen. So far this year, the Ravens have allowed 50 plays of 20 yards or more. And the defense has dropped to eighth against the run, allowing 98.8 yards on the ground per contest.

The pass defense has fallen to 14th overall, allowing 221.1 yards per game. The most impressive aspect of the Ravens' defense is not allowing a ton of points this year, ranking fourth in scoring defense with a 17.6 average. "The most important stat right now is winning at the end of the game," safety Ed Reed said. "It doesn't matter how many leads we've blown. You can ask anybody across the league what's the most important stat right now they care about. "You rather win ugly or lose pretty. Of course, we want to stop them every time. Of course, we want to get off the field. We've got to execute better." Outscored 105-74 in the fourth quarter, the Ravens' veteran-laden defense is displaying troubling signs of getting tired late in games. The offense did the defense no favors Monday night, failing to score or eat up the clock because of an ineffectual running game that never got into gear.

"I guess what we need to do better as a team is just play the whole 60 minutes," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I think it's just finish guys off, just continue to do what you did in the first half the whole game. Just finish people off."

The Texans' final two scoring drives were a combined 27 plays, 194 yards and kept the defense on the field for 7 minutes and 24 seconds. The Texans converted 7 of 18 third downs and all four of their fourth-down tries. "Guys were definitely winded," Reed said. "I can't say you've got be better about your conditioning at this point, but.. Defensively, we know we've got to get off the field come third down." Another reason the Ravens had trouble in the second half against the Texans could be connected to defensive coordinator Greg Mattison deploying a more conservative scheme. The Ravens brought less blitzes and dropped deeper into coverage with very little press coverage.

"You could say that in the sense that you stop bringing as much pressure," strong safety Dawan Landry said. "You still have to play what's called and work it. It was more coverage and less blitzing. You still want to get off on third downs. They kept driving. They got hot. "Whatever the coach calls, whatever he's feeling, we just want to play. It doesn't dictate how we play. We want to stop guys and tackle and get off the field."

The Ravens still feature strong personnel on defense, especially Reed, Suggs, All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

Reed has intercepted four passes since being activated from the physically unable to perform list following offseason hip surgery. He has one interception in the past five games and allowed a touchdown to Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson in the first half against the Texans. "It was a Cover 2, and he scrambled a little bit, got out of the pocket," Reed said. "As I stepped up, ‘Dre just kept trickling down the field and just misjudged the ball. Probably should have stayed on my feet at that time, but I thought I had good chance to play it and just misjudged the ball. I was running at an off-key position and just have to be more disciplined." Reed is still regarded as one of the top centerfielders in the game and is among the most instinctive safeties in NFL history. However, the secondary lacks a true shutdown cornerback and there isn't much of a pass rush besides Suggs, who leads the team with 10 sacks and Ngata, who has 5 ½ sacks. Instead of Pro Bowl cornerbacks like Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle, the Ravens now rely upon Chris Carr, Lardarius Webb and Wilson after benching a struggling Fabian Washington. Is the Ravens' defense still feared?

"They've played at a high level for a long period of time," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "It's really hard to point to any other organization that's had that staying power. Whether it's their defense versus the Steelers or versus the Patriots, this will be a big test for us. This will probably be one of the top defenses, if not the top defense we've seen all season."

Was the Texans' game a sign of how the Ravens could be exploited by explosive offenses. "I see that as kind of an aberration," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "I have a lot of respect for the defense, I always have."

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