Defense all alone with no offensive support

OWINGS MILLS -- The Baltimore Ravens' vaunted defense is all alone again, the only sentries guarding a fading football team from falling into complete oblivion. Without the blue-collar work of the NFL's fifth-ranked defense, last year's division champions could be in an even worse predicament than this undesirable crossroads.

With Baltimore (4-5) mired in a three-game losing streak, winless in four division contests and ranked third in the AFC North, this rapid descent has a stagnant offense's name written all over it.

Now, the defense is being counted on to preserve any remaining competitiveness for an aging team that set a franchise record with last year's 13-3 campaign. It's not hard to imagine where this team might be without a defense that has held opponents to one touchdown or less in four games.

"You're never going to get us to fade," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "You're never going to get us to flinch. I don't care how bad it is, the group that we have in this room, we're never going to fade, we're never going to flinch."

That type of resolve is invaluable for a team that lacks an offensive identity.

The NFL's 23rd-ranked offense has scored just 10 touchdowns this season with a 15.3 scoring average per game that ranks ahead of only the Kansas City Chiefs, St. Louis Rams, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers. Those teams have a combined mark of 10-26.

The Ravens' inability to score has left the defense virtually helpless. Eleven turnovers from embattled quarterback Steve McNair have directly led to 51 points as opposing offenses have capitalized on short fields all year.

Regardless of their offensive partners' shortcomings, the defense is determined to maintain its stingy ways.

"Well, I'll just keep doing my job and playing hard," linebacker Bart Scott said. "What happens, happens. You play hard and not be part of the problem, but be part of the solution. "Everybody needs to do their job and get in their playbook. That's all you can do. What else can I say?"

Not much, certainly nothing complimentary about an offense whose problems hearkened wide receiver Mark Clayton back to the team's most high-profile setback in the last year: a 15-6 playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts where Baltimore allowed five field goals.

During the Ravens' pitiful 21-7 loss Sunday to the Cincinnati Bengals, the defense allowed seven field goals as the offense committed six turnovers.

"That reminded me of the Colts game," Clayton said.

Despite missing their top three cornerbacks -- Chris McAlister (strained knee), Samari Rolle (undisclosed illness) and Corey Ivy (concussion) -- a shorthanded, inexperienced secondary kept an explosive Bengals offense from finding the end zone.

This transpired one week after giving up five touchdown passes in a 38-7 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"Rex Ryan and his staff did a phenomenal job given their circumstances against an incredibly potent offense," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "They certainly played well enough for us to win and we're going to have to do a lot to make sure that that doesn't happen again."

Even with defensive end Trevor Pryce missing five games due to a broken left wrist and the offseason departure of All-Pro linebacker Adalius Thomas, the defense has held together.

The Ravens have allowed just 277.0 yards per game, ranking second in rushing defense (73.7 yards per game), 12th in passing defense (203.3 yards per game), second in first downs (13.9 per game), fifth in third-down defense (34.9 percent) and second overall in red-zone defense (33.3 percent).

Baltimore is allowing just 19.8 points per game, but has been outscored 178 to 138, including 40-13 in the first quarter. Nearly half of the Ravens' points have been scored by kicker Matt Stover on 18 field goals and a dozen extra points.

"The ball doesn't have to go over our head," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said Monday night during his weekly radio show. "We don't have to miss tackles. As a team, there's a lot to get better.

"Offense wasn't on the field when Pittsburgh was throwing the ball over our heads last Monday. This is a journey. Anybody can jump off the train."

With the notable exception of Lewis second-guessing Billick's play-calling a few weeks ago, the defense has remained disciplined about not pointing fingers at an inept offense.

The fans have made it clear who they believe is to blame for this regression, booing the offense at every turn Sunday.

"Yeah, it bothers me because I don't particularly know who they're booing," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "They're booing us. These are my brothers, all of them: offense, special teams, left tackle, the kicker. "We're a team. No one man is exempt. They say, 'The Baltimore Ravens are 4-5.' We're 4-5 as a team."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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