Gut check time for Ravens defense

How will the Ravens defense cope without Ray Lewis, Lardarius Webb and Terrell Suggs? Getty Images

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore defense makes the Ravens vulnerable now and through an expected playoff run. Writing these words feels like football sacrilege. It's like saying Aaron Rodgers is a slumping quarterback or Bill Belichick is slipping as a coach.

But the Ravens' defense, top 10 for nearly every season the last decade, is taking the hits these days instead of delivering them. No Ray Lewis. No Lardarius Webb. No Terrell Suggs. No semblance of a defense that once stonewalled running backs, harassed quarterbacks and carried the Ravens to countless wins and a Super Bowl title. Lewis and Webb were officially ruled out for the rest of the season Monday, and Suggs remains out indefinitely with an Achilles injury suffered this spring.

It's a legitimate question to ask: Will this struggling and banged-up defense be the downfall of the Ravens' championship aspirations? It certainly could be, and the consensus around the country is that it probably should be. Right now, the answer is no, although it comes with an asterisk. The Ravens can win as long as this defense doesn't get significantly worse.

Baltimore (5-1) is tied for the best record in the AFC because its potent no-huddle offense has offset a defense that had been pushed around even with Lewis and Webb in the lineup. So the Ravens have already proved they can win with a below-average defense. But the Ravens' margin of victory in their four-game winning streak is 3.2 points, which says the offense can bear only so much weight going forward.

This is now, and for the next three months, a gut check for the Ravens' defense. Yes, it's a cliche, but it's definitely appropriate here. When players go down, they always recite the "next man up" mantra. For safety Ed Reed, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and what seems like the Ravens' junior varsity version of a defense, it's time for them to man up.

The Ravens can't allow Arian Foster to run for three touchdowns and expect to beat the Texans. They can't give up more than 400 yards passing to Peyton or Eli Manning and think it will be good enough to win in December. They can't watch Ben Roethlisberger lead a couple of game-winning drives and feel comfortable about their chances of keeping control of the division. Teams have won with a strong offense and suspect defense in the past, but it's too early to start comparing these Ravens to last year's Patriots.

Even before these injuries, Baltimore's ability to handle adversity had shaped the early part of its season. How the Ravens rebound from the loss of Lewis and Webb will determine whether they capture a second straight AFC North title and advance to the postseason for a fifth straight season.

"I feel great about our guys' chances to fill in," coach John Harbaugh said. "That's something we've been able to do in the past. Obviously, that's going to define what we're going to be able to accomplish this year. That's something we're going to need to do, from a leadership standpoint and from a playing standpoint. Our chances of doing it? I won't put odds on it. That's just something that we're going to have to get done."

Harbaugh is right that the Ravens survived without Lewis last season. Baltimore went 4-0 in his absence and held teams to 12.5 points per game. But that was a different supporting cast and different defense.

With Lewis, Webb and Suggs out, the Ravens will line up five different starters from the defense that went after Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game nine months ago. If that wasn't bad enough for Baltimore, Ngata has a sprained knee and Reed's tackling has become a liability.

The one hope for the Ravens' defense is the return of Suggs, who partially tore his Achilles six months ago. Although he is eligible to practice this week under the rules of the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, Suggs is not expected to return until early November. Even when he does come back, no one knows what kind of impact he'll make. It's another question mark for a team that is suddenly filled with them.

The Ravens' defense used to be filled with Pro Bowl names. When Suggs is able to return, he may need a roster himself to identify his teammates. Dannell Ellerbe, who was undrafted, is expected to start in Lewis' spot. Jimmy Smith, who has been a rare first-round disappointment for the Ravens, is going to replace Webb. The other new starters include another undrafted player (linebacker Albert McClellan) and a 2011 fifth-round pick (defensive end Pernell McPhee).

Defense has been a source of pride in Baltimore for a long time. The Ravens' defense has finished in the top 10 for nine straight seasons, which is tied for the third-longest streak in the NFL since the 1970 merger. Baltimore had the third-best defense last season in yards allowed (288.9) and points given up (16.6).

It's been a sudden and dramatic free fall for that defense this year. Opposing quarterbacks threw for more than 320 yards against the Ravens in three straight games. That was followed by back-to-back games in which Baltimore allowed more than 200 yards rushing, the first time that has happened in the franchise's 17-year existence.

In the current landscape of the AFC, where only the Ravens and Texans have winning records, every team is flawed. The Ravens' soft spot is a traditionally strong defense that has lost its leader and its top cornerback. The Steelers and Bengals have renewed hope that they can close the two-game gap on the Ravens. It's up to Baltimore's defense to prove everyone wrong.

"There have been many, many times where we've won because of our defense has carried a heavy, heavy burden over the years," Harbaugh said. "For our offense to carry some of that burden, and for our special teams to carry some of that burden, is a great thing. I'm quite sure our defense is going to do the same during the course of the season. I've got a lot of confidence in those guys. We're going to play really good defense as the year goes on."