The final minutes of the Baltimore Ravens' 23-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday were marked by a critical defensive breakdown that sealed a second consecutive loss.
In a rare and unusual occurrence for the second-ranked defense in the NFL that usually spearheads a points-starved football team, Baltimore (4-2) lost because of a blown defensive assignment that led to All-Pro wide receiver Steve Smith's game-clinching, 72-yard touchdown catch. For a change, it wasn't the Baltimore offense's fault.
"I imagine someone was supposed to stay with him," said Ravens coach Brian Billick with heavy sarcasm after his team's six-game winning streak at M&T Bank Stadium was halted. "Most defenses are designed that way."
Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme wanted to throw the football to Keyshawn Johnson, but promptly changed his mind when he saw cornerback Chris McAlister disrupt his route with a jam. Delhomme glanced downfield and saw Smith all by himself deep behind the secondary, waving his hand high in the air.
Cornerback Samari Rolle, who was beaten in the second quarter by Drew Carter for a 42-yard score and his third touchdown pass allowed in the past four games, was checking Smith. Rolle released him toward the deep middle where he thought former NFL Defensive Player of the Year safety Ed Reed would be. Reed wasn't in the area, though.
"I thought I was going to throw to Keyshawn, but Chris McAlister was up pressed on Keyshawn," Delhomme said. "I don't know if the safety had vision to me and my next thought -- we had the lead -- is hit my crosses, just get it out of my hand.
"When I look, all I see is 89 [Smith] running down the field with his hand up in the air. Just throw it. A lot of guys were giving me grief on the sidelines saying they were waiting for the ball to come down."
Although both Rolle and Reed took responsibility for the miscue afterward, it was Reed who reacted strongly toward Delhomme's primary target. That left the middle of the field extremely vulnerable, and Smith streaked into the end zone.
"He was my responsibility and he scored a touchdown. It was a miscommunication," Reed said. "We knew what they were going to do and they made a play."
Added Rolle: "They had our number. We just didn't make the adjustment to the ball. I need to play better. We need to play better. We can't make any excuses."
Baltimore surrendered a season-high 414 yards of total offense as Delhomme passed for a career-high 365 yards on 24 of 39 passing. Smith caught eight passes for 189 yards, an average of 23.6 yards per reception.
Plus, the Panthers, who entered the game as the worst third-down offense in the NFL, converted 7 of 15 third downs.
"We thought we were good on defense," linebacker Adalius Thomas said. "We didn't do nothing today, period.
"Technique. If you're supposed to do something, then do it. There wasn't any damn communication problem. Get on the same page and do your job."
McNair left the game with a medium concussion and a neck sprain late in the first quarter after completing 2 of 4 passes for 4 yards, one interception and a 16.7 passer rating. A myriad of tests were negative, according to team officials, and he should be able to return after the bye against the New Orleans Saints.
McNair's exit to Union Memorial Hospital set the stage for an unlikely scenario: deposed former starter Kyle Boller trying leading the team to a victory.
Although Boller threw three touchdown passes, including two fortuitously tipped balls that landed in wide receiver Mark Clayton's hands for a pair of touchdowns, he was unable to engineer a comeback in the final moments following Smith's score.
Operating out the shotgun and going no-huddle, Boller tossed a 7-yard touchdown pass on a fade to tight end Todd Heap with 2:19 remaining after Smith's touchdown to bring the Ravens within two points.
"I had an opportunity to go out there and do some things, but we came up short," said Boller, who completed 17 of 31 passes for 226 yards, one interception and a 97.0 passer rating "All I can do is go out there and give my best and try and move the ball."
However, Delhomme converted a key third down with 1:26 left on a pass to Carter. Baltimore burned its final timeout two plays later. Then, Delhomme kneeled down to end the game.
Delhomme went 24-for-39 with two fairly meaningless interceptions and the first one ending his franchise-record run of 150 passes without being picked off. However, he did enough to produce 23 points for the most scored against the Ravens this year and threw for the fifth-most yards against them ever.
"It was a roller coaster," linebacker Bart Scott said. "We'll win 90 percent of those."
Although the Ravens did move the ball fairly consistently with Boller under center, it wasn't enough to counteract a Carolina offense that kept generating points as kicker John Kasay tacked on field goals from 21, 31 and 21 yards.
The Ravens failed to score after either of Delhomme's interceptions.
"Obviously when you lose two in a row and you don't get [expletive] on offense, excuse my language, until you've got to muster some points, there's not much you can say," said wide receiver Derrick Mason, expressing his weekly frustrations about the NFL's 29th-ranked offense. "You can't fault the defense. They've been playing lights out for the last five games. You're entitled to one slip-up here or there."
The Ravens left the stadium wondering about the health of their new franchise quarterback, the cohesiveness of their Pro Bowl-laden secondary and how they can regain a winning formula that produced an unprecedented 4-0 start to launch the season.
"The bye week couldn't come at a better time, we aren't flustered," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "There is no need to panic. It's not like we're 2-4."
Now, Baltimore heads into the bye one game ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals for first place in the AFC North. The Ravens' dark locker room mood doesn't reflect their record.
"Right now, football isn't fun," said Mason, who was held without a catch for the first time this season. "I shall forget about football for a week. To hell with football right now."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.
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