Many reasons for Ravens' struggling run defense

Ravens defensive end Pernell McPhee simultaneously furrowed his brow, shook his head and frowned.

It was a telling reaction triggered by McPhee recounting instances of how the defense has consistently failed to stop the run this season, a bizarre departure from a traditional hallmark of the reigning AFC North champions.

"We're real disappointed," McPhee said. "It's about the name that the Baltimore Ravens holds, and we aren't playing that kind of defense, especially run defense. It's been crazy. It's frustrating. It's a lot of fundamental things going wrong, but it ain't effort. We're trying hard."

Prior to being sidelined for Sunday's game at M&T Bank Stadium against the Oakland Raiders and last week against the Cleveland Browns because of knee and thigh injuries, McPhee was among the culprits for the Ravens' defensive breakdowns.

He started at left defensive end against the Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Texans, as the Ravens endured an unprecedented stretch with the beleaguered defense allowing a total of 622 rushing yards.

Historically stout against even the most dangerous running backs, the Ravens are plummeting to a new low mark in franchise history.

Allowing 139.5 rushing yards per contest and ranked 28th in run defense heading into Sunday's game against Oakland, the Ravens are on pace to allow a franchise-record 2,232 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns this season.

The previous worst performance was during their inaugural season in 1996 when injured middle linebacker Ray Lewis was a rookie. The Ravens finished 23rd in run defense that year, surrendering 120 rushing yards per game and a total of 1,920 rushing yards for the season.

"The Ravens' defense doesn't look anywhere near as aggressive as they've been," NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell said. "There's been an incremental change. It's strange to watch how they've been playing compared to what you're accustomed to seeing."

Whether it's Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson plowing ahead for 105 yards last week, giving up a franchise single-game record 227 rushing yards to the Cowboys, or being shredded by Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles and Texans star runner Arian Foster, it's been a series of embarrassments for a once-stingy outfit.

Just last season, though, the Ravens finished second in run defense overall. They had been in the top 10 in rushing defense for the past nine years, with six top-five rankings during that span. Barring a dramatic change in the second half of the season, that streak will be broken.

"Nobody has pressed the panic button, and nobody is going to push the panic button," strong safety Bernard Pollard said. "We are a prideful group. It's been times we've had to eat that humble pie. That's one of the worst things in front of the fans, on national television."

Here's a look at key elements causing the run-stopping regression:

Missed tackles

The most glaring example of the Ravens' struggles against the run was on display during a 31-29 victory over the Cowboys on Oct. 14 when they unraveled defensively.

It didn't matter who carried the football against Baltimore, as the Cowboys piled up yards against a defense struggling to bring runners down to the ground. Dallas averaged 5.4 yards per carry even though starting running back DeMarco Murray left the game with a foot injury.

Both Pollard and free safety Ed Reed were stiff-armed repeatedly as backs routinely gained yards after first contact.

"It's something we're trying to correct," outside linebacker Paul Kruger said. "It's not going to ever be completely fixed. There's always going to be a guy that breaks a tackle, but we're getting better. We're working hard."

The Ravens' lapses have included failing to wrap up runners, not driving through the ball carrier and trying unsuccessfully to deliver arm-tackles.

Are defenders trying to be a hero and make the play by themselves rather than working together and gang-tackling?

"I think we all have been a victim of that," said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year who missed the first six games with a partially torn right Achilles tendon. "Everybody is really wanting to be hungry to make the play. Sometimes it can bite you in the butt, being too aggressive.

"That's nothing new around here. That's how teams try to game-plan us and scheme us, because we are an aggressive defense, so they try to use our aggressiveness against us."

Promoted from linebackers coach before the season to replace Chuck Pagano, first-year defensive coordinator Dean Pees chalks up the shortcomings to technique problems in the front seven and missing tackles against Dallas.

Pees has dialed up several run blitzes to attempt to counteract the slippage up front.

"It's not about calling blitzes at the right time and pressures," Pees said. "You've got to make them work, and that's all by technique. We've gotten better, but we're not where we need to be."

Getting blocked

The defining trait of an effective 3-4 defense is maintaining a stout presence in the middle at nose guard.

The defense requires a hefty anchor to prevent blockers from reaching the second level, and not getting moved off the line of scrimmage.

Ravens nose guards Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody are massive at 6 feet 5, 345 pounds and 6-4, 341 pounds, respectively.

However, a common sight has been watching the tandem get driven off the football back into the linebackers, not penetrating the backfield or getting stuck to blocks.

"They get moved around with the double-teams," Cosell said. "That's one of the big foundations of attacking the running game. They've had trouble with that."

Against the Chiefs, centers and guards were repeatedly not tied up by Cody and Kemoeatu.

That led directly to blockers crashing into Lewis.

"We need to stay square, and stay on our feet," Cody said. "There were a couple of times where we weren't doing that well."

While the interior is suddenly vulnerable, the perimeter isn't exactly a stronghold.

The outside linebackers haven't consistently set the edge to provide containment on sweeps and zone-stretch runs. This became a huge issue against Charles (140 yards) and Foster (98 yards, two touchdowns).

"We have to keep getting better," rookie outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw said. "Our job is to set the edge."

Where's the impact player?

One major change for the defense is how players rarely defeat single-blocking schemes and toss a running back to the ground for a loss of yardage.

That development has been especially noticeable with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata being limited recently with two tackles in the past two games while dealing with a painful sprained knee and shoulder injury. He was practically unblockable prior to getting hurt against Dallas.

"Obviously, Ngata hasn't been as dominant," Cosell said. "That's a huge factor. You can see it in his performance."

With Lewis sidelined, Jameel McClain is the new starting middle linebacker. Signed to a $10.5 million contract during the offseason, McClain hasn't generated big plays.

"I would say McClain neither stands out positively or negatively," Cosell said. "He's not a playmaker, nor is he playing poorly."

Dannell Ellerbe is starting next to McClain at weakside inside linebacker. The former undrafted free agent from Georgia has had an encouraging season so far with 49 tackles and 3 1/2 sacks, including a game-high nine tackles and the Ravens' only sack against the Browns.

However, Ellerbe hasn't always played fundamentally sound and within the framework of the defense

"You can see that he has talent, but he struggles with play recognition and gap discipline," Cosell said. "They have to find out if he can be that guy to solidify the middle."

Injuries affecting defense

The run defense has been dented severely by the losses of several key players.

Although Lewis, 37, wasn't having a sterling season before tearing his right triceps tendon, undergoing surgery and being placed on injured reserve-designated to return, his experience and emotional leadership are regarded as invaluable.

Standout cornerback Lardarius Webb is out for the season with a torn left anterior cruciate ligament.

Webb was arguably the Ravens' top tackler as far as being a decisive, striking presence, and had 25 tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery before getting hurt against Dallas.

"I love Webb, and I think they miss him a ton," Cosell said. "Webb added a lot as a blitzer to the pressure concepts."

And Pollard (rib contusion), Reed (torn shoulder labrum), Kemoeatu (knee), Ngata and McPhee have all been slowed by injuries, affecting their production.

The Ravens have plugged in new personnel to try to make up for injuries and losing two gritty veteran starters in outside linebacker Jarret Johnson and defensive end Cory Redding to free agency. But the problem hasn't gone away.

"Being banged-up is a big part of what's gone on," McPhee said. "But there's no excuse when you've got grown men out there and we haven't played the way we want to play."

awilson@baltsun.com

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