That feeling of helplessness was all too familiar to the Ravens defenders – the feeling that they couldn’t organize themselves to slow the avalanche rolling their way, about to wipe out a lead that had seemed secure just moments before.

In the locker room after the Miami Dolphins unleashed a rushing massacre in front of a stunned crowd at M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens’ quarterbacks talked ruefully about communication breakdowns and urgent fixes. They insisted their faith in the big mission hasn’t wavered, but some of those same players said the same thing in 2021, when a secondary that was expected to be one of the best in football finished last in pass defense.

Are they stuck in some horrible loop where reality never matches their best laid plans?

The Ravens will begin to answer that question on Sunday against the New England Patriots. They said they couldn’t afford to dwell on the images of their 42-38 loss to the Dolphins: Tua Tagovailoa’s passes inevitably went down as Tyreek Hill ran past defenders who didn’t seem to know which one to pick off the most terrible in sports a deep threat. They promised a quick repair.

“How we respond to that,” coach John Harbaugh told them in the losing locker room, “is going to be history.”

Fixing what ails the Ravens, however, seems easier said than done after Tagovailoa threw for 469 yards and six touchdowns against them in a performance that replicated similar disasters last year engineered by Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Barrow (416 and 525 for a pair of blasts), Derek Carr of the Las Vegas Raiders (435 yards in the season opener) and Carson Wentz of the Indianapolis Colts (402 yards in a game the Ravens came back to win in overtime).

Those body blows shaped general manager Eric DeCosta’s offseason priorities. “The exhaustion we faced in the second stage just stunned us towards the end of the year and it wasn’t the players’ fault,” he said, summing up 2021. – I guess it was my fault. We just lacked good angles; we just didn’t have enough guys.”

So he poured $70 million into free agent safety Marcus Williams, used three draft picks, including No. 14 overall (Kyle Hamilton), on defensive backs and added veteran cornerback Kyle Fuller for added safety. DeCosta also believed 2019 all-pros Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters would return to action after injuries cut short their 2021 seasons.

DeCosta has long stated his belief that modern NFL defenses must be built from the back, and this time he was determined to have enough skilled personnel on hand. The Ravens entered 2022 with more salary cap space on quarterbacks than all but two other teams, according to reports. If they were to return to the league’s elite, the secondary would be one of the main reasons.

DeCosta’s efforts drew rave reviews. In June, scouting and analytics website Pro Football Focus said it had assembled the league’s best secondary, adding a caveat: “The Ravens both have some of the biggest question marks in 2022 health-wise while also possessing the highest end elite potential. Four of their five starting quarterbacks over the past four seasons have earned top-10 picks at their respective positions. And that list doesn’t even include rookie first-rounder Kyle Hamilton, who will undoubtedly make a big difference.”

Ah, the “health perspective,” a caveat the Ravens can’t escape when it comes to their defense.

By the time they lined up to face the Dolphins last weekend, the secondary was already less solid than they thought. Fuller tore his ACL in the 80th game as he played in their opening win over the New York Jets. Humphrey was limited by a sore groin. Peters was ready to play for the first time in 20 months, but under an immediate limitation. Second-year defensive end Brandon Stevens, whose versatility is essential, was sidelined with a quadriceps injury.

The Ravens had to rely on rookie fourth-round picks Jaylin Armor-Davis and Damarion “Pepe” Williams to help cover the formidable pass-catching duo of Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Hamilton will also be asked to play an important role in creating a safety net behind the cornerbacks.

We know the results weren’t pretty: 11 catches for 190 yards for Hill and 11 for 170 for Waddle, who took advantage of the confusion in Baltimore to catch three touchdowns in the final eight minutes of the game. They became the first pair of NFL teammates to post those stat lines or better in a game.

So how bleak does this bode for the Ravens’ efforts to rebuild a pass defense that ranked fourth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA back in 2019?

They faced Miami with a half-empty cupboard. Humphrey is 56 of 71 defensive snaps, Peters 44 of 71. Both could be close to 100% in a few weeks. Stevens returned to practice Wednesday and said he hopes to play against the Patriots. If they don’t take any new damage, the picture will lighten up even without tactical adjustments.

But the Ravens were in no mood to blame their lingering health issues on the communication breakdowns against the Dolphins.

“It doesn’t matter who’s there, we’re expected to do the job at a high level,” said Armor-Davis, who learned how to play the secondary under the famously demanding Nick Saban at Alabama. “It doesn’t matter how young you are, how old you are. So it’s not even a discussion of, “Hey, it was a rookie.” It’s, “Hey, somebody didn’t do what they were supposed to do.” Someone didn’t get in touch.”

Hamilton described his immediate regret when he saw the pass go up in the air and realized he was unable to defend it. “At this level, people will take advantage of your mental mistakes,” he said. “You can’t use the fact that you’re a beginner as an excuse. The guys trust me to be in the right place at the right time. It’s not fair to let the coaches down, the fans, the family, but most of all my teammates because I’m with them every day. It is unacceptable to have such mental errors.”

Harbaugh balanced his frustration with the amateur mistakes with the understanding that some of the players involved were seeing their first meaningful NFL action.

“I didn’t expect things like that to happen in this game, but I also understand that we have some young guys,” he said. “It’s our first time throwing guys in an NFL game against some fast players and things are going fast and the game is on the line. That can happen, so if we had a veteran group in there, I’d be more concerned about that, but I think those young guys are learning fast.”

It’s easy to blame a misunderstanding on a play like Hill’s 60-yard touchdown that tied the game. Safeties Williams and Hamilton lined up on the other side of the field near the line of scrimmage, and neither had a prayer of scrambling in time to back up Armour-Davis, who seemed to think a teammate would be behind him. . How the team’s defensive backs learn to talk about such mistakes is more difficult to explain.

“It’s a group thing. It’s a group effort,” Stevens said. “We are not pointing fingers. You just need to work together. We just have to work as a unit. I’m sure. … We don’t fight about it too much.”

How is secondary communication practiced? Armor-Davis reverted to a mantra from training camp: “Emphasis it up. In practice, it doesn’t matter if everyone hears it; make sure people outside the institution hear it. It doesn’t matter if you know your boyfriend heard it. Just keep saying it. Re-emphasize everything, because there can be no such mistakes.’

For now, the coaches can only decipher that message, the rookie added: “It’s kind of inside. These are the players who have to go out and do it. We are the ones who have to communicate on the pitch, so this is a message from within.”

First-year defensive coordinator Mike McDonald, also in the spotlight since the loss, believes those conversations between players will lead to improvements. “There’s communication, especially with the vets, and how they see things and how they want to play,” he said. “It creates more dialogue as we prepare for new teams. I’m happy with what they’re doing with it.”

The Ravens know they’re in for a tough backlash if they go through another season with results that don’t live up to the preseason hype. It started this week with ESPN analyst and former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. “They stop the coverage, their communication is bad, they can’t finish the games anymore,” Ryan said on the “Get Up” morning show. “This new hot coordinator [Macdonald] terrible”.

“They can make any statement they want, but they’re not coaching anybody right now,” Harbaugh said in a not-so-veiled response to his former assistant.

But the players admitted that unless they responded with a better performance, the narrative would continue. The decline of 2021 will become the decline of 2022.

“We never expect to be second, let alone last,” Armor-Davis said. “We always expect to be the best. Give the Dolphins credit. They fulfilled their plan, but we did not. But we know we’ve made a lot of mistakes of our own making, so we know that if we clean them up – if we clean them up – we’ll be where we want to be.”

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