The once-esteemed defense of the Baltimore Ravens is almost unrecognizable these days.
Many of the unit's most established players — including Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb — have sustained serious injuries. Suggs missed first six games of the season on the sideline with a torn right Achillies tendon, returned for a half-dozen games and then sat out last week with a torn right biceps. Lewis has been sidelined since Oct. 14 with a torn right triceps, and Webb is out for the year with a torn ACL.
As a result, the Baltimore defense has been uncharacteristically porous this season, especially in the fourth quarter.
The Ravens are ranked 24th in total defense, which means their nine-year run of top-10 finishes is almost certainly over. Baltimore finished in the top 5 in run defense over the previous six years, but now its ranked 25th among 32 teams.
Although head coach John Harbaugh fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron on Monday, the Ravens' current two-game losing streak could be attributed heavily to the defense. Two weeks ago, third-string quarterback Charlie Batch moved Pittsburgh the length of the field in the waning seconds to set up a game-winning field goal. Last Sunday, the Redskins got the tying touchdown and 2-point conversion with 29 seconds left in a 31-28 win.
"We've just got to finish," Harbaugh said.
Injuries are mostly to blame. Washington rookie Kirk Cousins victimized reserve cornerback Chris Johnson on the last-minute touchdown pass, and third-string linebacker Josh Bynes was on the field for the conversion play because Suggs, Lewis, Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe were unavailable.
Lewis and Suggs have not yet been on the field at the same time on game day, and it's quite possible the Ravens (9-4) will again be without both Pro Bowl stars when they host Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos (10-3) on Sunday.
"Every team deals with injuries, and just it's a next-man-up mentality," Manning said. "Ray Lewis is a guy we all know is hard to replace, but Baltimore always has young talent and guys ready to step in. They're aggressive on defense no matter who's in there."
Perhaps, but the Ravens are clearly better with Suggs and Lewis in the lineup. Both practiced Wednesday, but Harbaugh said a decision on their status for Sunday would be made later in the week.
Harbaugh ruled out McClain, who has neck and back injuries. The injuries on defense run so deep that the Ravens activated cornerback Omar Brown from the practice squad on Wednesday to place Asa Jackson, who was suspended four games for violating the NFL policy on performance enhancing substances.
Asked if he's ever been a part of a defense that had so many injuries, safety Ed Reed shook his head before the question was completed.
"This is by far one of those years," Reed said. "I think when coach first got here, second year, we had a lot of injuries. But not like this."
In addition to Suggs, Lewis, McClain, Ellerbe, Webb and McClain, the Ravens have also been forced to operate at times without tackle Haloti Ngata, cornerback Jimmy Smith and end Pernell McPhee.
"It's been tough," Harbaugh said. "It's been probably as many injuries as we've ever had on defense here during the last five years. We've got confidence in whoever we put out there. We are starting to get a little healthier, so it will be good to get some of those guys back."
Ellerbe, who has missed two straight games with a sprained ankle, hopes to be available Sunday. This much he does know: Watching from the sideline is no fun.
"That's a terrible feeling, to see your guys out there fighting and trying to win the game and you can't help them," Ellerbe said, no doubt echoing the sentiment of many of his injured teammates. "You know you're an asset to the team but you can't go out there and help. It's just something that's hard to deal with."
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL