Ravens' defensive backs in spotlight after Sunday

OWINGS MILLS -- It's third-and-long in the Baltimore Ravens' season, and suddenly pass coverage has emerged as a troublesome issue. <br><br> The Ravens' alarming 27-26 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals was marked by the usually stingy secondary allowing 382 passing yards, including three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter. <br><br>Baltimore (7-5) had previously surrendered only seven touchdown passes.

Largely because of the defensive backs' excessive gambling,
miscommunication, indecisiveness and not carrying out assignments according to the game plan, the Ravens blew a 20-3 lead and complicated their wild-card outlook.

Victimizing cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Gary Baxter, receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh combined for 20 receptions, 332 yards and three scores as quarterback Carson Palmer completed 80.6 percent of his passes.

"Absolutely, there's no doubt we can correct it," Baltimore secondary coach Johnnie Lynn said. "It's a matter of fundamentals, techniques and carrying out the assignment that you're responsible to do, so everyone can count on you to do your job.

"There was some gambling. They were influenced by situations. You get too eager. You want to protect deep and let them throw underneath. We didn't adjust the right way."

It was an uncharacteristic performance considering that Baltimore entered the game with the fewest points allowed in the NFL and now ranks fifth.

The Ravens lead the league in opposing quarterback rating (68.4), but Palmer achieved a 127.1 passer rating.

With the loss, Baltimore dropped from fourth in total defense to eighth in the NFL. And the Ravens dipped from fourth to sixth in passing defense (188.3 yards per contest) and now rank 11th in the league on third down.

Cincinnati averaged 9.1 yards per passing attempt as Palmer completed 29 of 36 passes, including two spikes to stop the clock.

Baltimore also had a major problem with communication breakdowns and free-lancing in the season-opener, a 20-3 loss to the Cleveland Browns.

"You have to play within our game plan," Lynn said. "If you do your job, it gets taken care of. A lot of times, we weren't doing our job. We were trying to do too much."

Multiple times, including on a few of Johnson's scores, there was a misunderstanding between the cornerbacks and safeties Ed Reed and Will Demps on pick plays and inside-outside coverage. Johnson scored one touchdown on a diagonal route when McAlister got stuck in traffic in
the middle of the field.

Whenever they were bunched together, the Bengals' wideouts simply burst in opposite directions to create separation.

"You can say, 'Let's zone this and make these guys commit,' then get on them from there or just lock it where it's, 'I'm going to take my guy, you take your guy,'" Lynn said. "If you don't lock it fast enough, it's too late because the ball is already out of the quarterback's hand."

It's telling to note that safety Will Demps led the Ravens with a season-high 15 tackles.

McAlister, a Pro Bowl selection last season, was in his first start back since suffering a stinger a few weeks ago. He looked confused and rarely matched Johnson's speed, agility and route-running. He was often caught flat-footed.

When Reed fumbled an interception while holding the football far too loosely, McAlister scooped it up and sprinted 64 yards for a touchdown. Other than that third-quarter play, though, McAlister was generally off his game.

"Chris is probably his own worst critic," Lynn said. "He's hardest on himself. Can he do this better? Yes.

"It's even harder to sleep when you lose. You learn a tough lesson." Baxter injured the A-C joint in his shoulder, but returned to the game and Lynn said he expects him to recuperate well enough to be available Sunday against the New York Giants and struggling rookie quarterback Eli Manning.

In two weeks, the Ravens play the Indianapolis Colts and Eli Manning's accomplished older brother, Peyton Manning.

"We can't look past Jeremy Shockey, Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard," Lynn said. "If we don't get that done there is no next week."

Nickel back Deion Sanders is expected to return to practice this week after missing the last four games with a toe injury.

The Ravens lost for the first time Sunday when Reed recorded an interception, dropping to 5-1 for the season.

While the Ravens rank second in the NFL with 47 three-and-outs for a percentage of 30.9 percent, they had just one three-and-out against the Bengals.

Palmer had three completions between 20 and 29 yards and three between 30 and 39 yards. Plus, there was a 51-yard fly pattern to Johnson behind McAlister.

"It's got to change," Lynn said. "It's, 'How can we get this fixed? How can I communicate with the other guys better?' We came into that game with nastiness.

"We've got to have that swagger about ourselves, that inner pride, and play as a group. We're better than this and we're going to show we're better than this."

NOTE: Reed and McAlister were nominated for NFL Play of the Week.

Aaron Wilson is the chief writer for RavensInsider.Com He is also the Ravens' reporter for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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