Again and again, the Baltimore Ravens' Pro Bowl laden secondary has been getting torched lately by long passes.
Despite sporting the NFL's third-ranked defense and top-ranked rushing defense, the Ravens rank 17th in pass defense and have surrendered five touchdown passes in the past two games.
All of those scores have come on passes of 25 yards or longer, including a 72-yard game-clinching touchdown by Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith. Plus, Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme aired it out for 365 yards in a 23-21 victory and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees piled up 383 passing yards in last weekend's 35-22 Baltimore win.
Now, the Ravens (5-2) are looking to regroup defensively Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals (4-3) as they take on one of the most explosive passing games in the league.
"Us as a defense, we just have to stay true to our technique, go out and execute our defense as we have in the past, or as we did in the first four games," Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister said. "The bottom line is stopping the ball from going over our head. If we can do that, it's going to be hard for anybody to score any points against us."
This is an especially critical area of concern against the Bengals, who have defeated Baltimore in three consecutive games by averaging 30 points per contest.
Elite wide receiver duo Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh have caught 20 passes for 340 yards and three touchdowns and 24 catches for 379 yards and two touchdowns, respectively, in those games.
"We've got to get a handle on the big plays," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Clearly, that is the number one thing, and certainly against a team like Cincinnati, we better get it under control. They could light this thing up if we don't handle the deep ball better."
Cornerback Samari Rolle has been exploited more often than anyone else, allowing a total of five touchdown passes over the past five games, including scores to Smith, Carolina's Drew Carter, the Cleveland Browns' Braylon Edwards, the San Diego Chargers' Malcom Floyd and Saints rookie Marques Colston.
"We've got to improve on the back end," Rolle said. "I think we just need to pay attention to detail and fundamentals and communication. That's how you negate big plays."
In both of the past two games, the Panthers and Saints were unable to generate a rushing attack, gaining just 58 rushing yards and 35 rushing yards, respectively. That forced them to throw and boosted the numbers through the air.
However, there have also been significant communication issues in the secondary where, following touchdowns, players have stared at each other with that, 'I thought you were supposed to have him,' look.
"Hey, guys make plays in this league, but obviously you've got to be where you're supposed to be and doing what you're supposed to be doing," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "I think our intensity got a little lax at the end Sunday when the score was out of hand."
On Smith's touchdown, Rolle thought that Reed was supposed to give him help in the deep middle and released him toward him. Reed had already reacted toward Keyshawn Johnson, though.
Reed has a well-known penchant for gambling in his zeal to make big plays, but has intercepted just one pass and that was in the season opener.
Against the Saints, there were several instances where Colston or Joe Horn streaked down the middle and the sidelines relatively unencumbered by Reed or the cornerbacks. Also, Rolle missed an open-field tackle on one score.
"Communication is key every week," Reed said.
"Communication and making sure we know what we're doing. If we're not, bad plays happen."
The Ravens will need to be on the same page against the Bengals, especially when defending Johnson. Contending with double and triple-team attention throughout the season, he has only caught two touchdown passes.
However, Johnson has averaged six catches and 96.5 yards in his past eight games against Baltimore for totals of 772 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
In two victories last season against Baltimore, Johnson caught 10 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown as All-Pro quarterback Carson Palmer completed 41 of 56 passes for 550 yards, five touchdowns and one interception in topping Baltimore, 21-9 and 42-29.
"This is one of those games I always can't wait for," Johnson said. "I really, really get myself motivated for. Some games are just a lot more special than others, and this is one of those games."
Ryan was quick to point out that the Ravens scored two defensive touchdowns on interception returns by rookies Dawan Landry and Ronnie Prude against New Orleans, and have already picked off 15 as a team and registered 21 sacks.
"We want to shut people out, but things like that happen occasionally," Ryan said. "I think the focus might want to be on the big plays we're generating.
"The proof is in the pudding. We'll find out where we rank after the season. We'll see who has egg on their face at the end."
Like most NFL defenses, the Ravens react and operate differently when they have a lead. Nearly half of the Saints' 403 yards of total offense were gained after Baltimore had built a 35-7 advantage.
Despite having three former Pro Bowl selections among their four starting defensive backs, the Ravens haven't been able to solve this big-play quandary yet.
"Of course, do we have a standard? Heck, yeah," Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "We don't like people to catch balls. But when you're up by as many points as that, we're not going to play the same style defense we always play.
"There are some things that's really kind of misconstrued, but if people want to take it that way, take it that way. I just tell you be careful."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.
Ravens' secondary and the deep ball
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