For years, the Baltimore Ravens have won because of their defense. Now they're winning in spite of it.
That does not sit well with defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who could not mask his disgust Thursday when asked to comment on a unit uncharacteristically ranked 26th among 32 NFL teams.
"It makes me sick," he said. "It's up to me and it's up to our staff to get this corrected."
Baltimore is 5-1, no thanks to a defense that yielded a whopping 30 first downs in a 31-29 win over Dallas on Sunday. After the Kansas City Chiefs amassed 214 yards rushing on Oct. 7, the Cowboys topped that with 227 on the ground — the most ever against the Ravens.
"I think it's to a point now where we have to take a stand," safety Bernard Pollard said. "Two weeks in a row, 200 freaking yards rushing? We have to walk out there with pride. We have to support our offense and special teams, getting the ball back to them. We cannot continue to ask our offense to go out there and put together these 35-, 40-point games. We can't continue to do that, because it's one-sided. We aren't helping them."
Pollard probably winced while watching tape of Baltimore's ugly win over Dallas.
"For us as a defense, we are (ticked) off, about the way we played. The things that we've put on film," Pollard said. "We own it. We are going to fix it, and I think it starts with the preparation throughout the week. Things are going to change."
It's almost bizarre, really, because the Ravens have been leaning on their defense for more than a decade. Entering this season, Baltimore ranked in the top 5 in run defense for six straight years, and the Ravens have held opponents under 4.0 yards per rush in every year of their existence (16).
This year, however, Baltimore ranks 26th against the rush and the opposition is averaging a robust 3.8 yards per carry — including 4.74 over the last two weeks.
"It's just not executing on the tackle," Pollard said. "We had one play (against Dallas) where the running back stiff-armed one guy and then stiff-armed another guy and ran for a touchdown. The other guy was me. We have to get guys on the ground."
And now the Ravens are gearing up for a matchup Sunday against Houston (5-1) and standout running back Arian Foster. Worse, the Ravens will be without linebacker Ray Lewis, the team's leading tackler, and shutdown cornerback Lardarius Webb, both of whom sustained significant injuries last Sunday.
Pees isn't concerned about his personnel. He's already without injured linebacker Terrell Suggs, and he's tried his best to fill the holes left by the departure of free agents Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding.
Jameel McClain will take over for Lewis and Jimmy Smith will assume the cornerback spot for Webb.
"You might do a couple of subtle things differently," Pees said. "But right now, I'm happy as I can be to be 5-1. But I also feel fortunate to be 5-1 the way we're playing on defense. Let's be honest. We're not playing well enough, and to say it any other way would sound like a political debate. We've got to do it. It's not about Houston and anybody else after Houston. It's more about us learning to play defense back to the way we play it. And that's about technique and fundamentals.
"With Ray and Lardarius out, yes, it's next man up. But it's about us playing better."
Pollard could not agree more.
"Don't blame the coach because he doesn't play," Pollard said. "Dean has made great calls. It's about us going out there and executing. The coaches can't push a button to make us wrap up and tackle."
Free safety Ed Reed, the last line of defense, missed several tackles on Sunday. He said this week that he's been playing through a shoulder injury, even though he was not listed on the team's injury report.
"I don't play baseball. So long as I'm not throwing," he said. "It's nothing to worry about. The last few weeks I've been dealing with it. It's all right."
Houston and Baltimore are the only teams in the AFC with winning record. That, and not the Ravens' struggling defense, is what caught the attention of Texans coach Gary Kubiak.
"The one thing that jumps at me is they may have given up some yards on the ground," he said, "but they're winning those games."
Ultimately, Pees believes, the defense will have something to do with it.
"These past six weeks, I can't change it," he said. "It's about going forward. We have enough talent to succeed. We just have to play better."