OWINGS MILLS, Md. – In assessing the Baltimore Ravens defense, the statistics tell all: Ranked 10th in the NFL, this unit is better than most but not quite up to its usual standard.
Baltimore owned the league's third-ranked defense last season and has finished in the top six in each of the past seven years. The Ravens have maintained their reputation as a dominant defensive force the past decade despite changes in the coaching staff and player personnel.
"They've played at a high level for long period of time," said New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, who will bring the defending Super Bowl champions to Baltimore on Sunday. "It's really hard to point to any other organization that's had that staying power."
This season, however, there have been cracks in the armor.
The Ravens have blown a fourth-quarter lead eight times, allowed 50 plays of more than 20 yards and are yielding an uncharacteristic 98.8 yards rushing per game.
"We've just been kind of inconsistent, and it's cost us," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "We've been extremely dominant at times, and there have been times we haven't played so well."
Ray Lewis remains a constant, as both a leader and a playmaker. But the 35-year-old linebacker's supporting cast lacks the experience and talent that characterized the Baltimore defense during its finest seasons.
Not too long ago, the Ravens relied on shutdown cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle to cover the opposition's best receivers. Baltimore now depends on a three-man rotation of Chris Carr, second-year pro Lardarius Webb and Josh Wilson, who replaced an ineffective Fabian Washington last month.
Behind them, veteran free safety Ed Reed is still trying to get comfortable after missing the first six games recovering from hip surgery. Although Reed has four interceptions, he's got only one pick in the last five games and acknowledged making at least one costly mistake in Monday night's 34-28 overtime win over Houston.
Linebacker Terrell Suggs has 10 sacks, but for much of the season he's essentially been working alone in his pursuit of the quarterback. The Ravens released an aging Trevor Pryce earlier in the season and have yet to find a suitable replacement.
Baltimore's big men up front have been efficient against the run, yet they were incapable of generating a decent pass rush during the second half in Houston.
After the Ravens went ahead 28-7 early in the third quarter, the defense was left exhausted by its fruitless chase of quarterback Matt Schaub, who engineered drives of 99 and 95 yards to force overtime.
"Guys were definitely winded," Reed conceded. "I'm not saying you have to better about your conditioning at this point, but..."
Fortunately, the defense came up with the big play. Josh Wilson's 12-yard interception return for a touchdown in overtime was the difference-maker.
"There's always plays that define where you go," Lewis said. "I believe that play ultimately defines where we're going."
The Ravens (9-4) appear playoff-bound. But how far they go will probably depend upon whether the defense can improve upon its erratic play.
"I guess what we need to do better as a team is play the whole 60 minutes," Suggs said. "Just finish guys off. Just continue to do what you did in the first half for the whole game."
Baltimore limited the Texans to one touchdown in the first half, then fell apart after halftime.
"I see that as kind of an aberration," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "I have a lot of respect for the defense. I always have."
Payton scoffed at the notion that the Baltimore defense is old and tired, referring to the fashion in which the Ravens played in low-scoring defeats against New England and Pittsburgh.
"I don't see that," he said. "Whether it's their defense versus the Steelers or versus the Patriots, this will be a big test for us. This will be probably one of the top defenses, if not the top defense we've seen all season."