The Ravens defense was gashed for more than 200 rushing yards by the Bills on Sunday, a shocking development for a front seven that had been stout against the run in the first three games.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees said there was plenty of blame to go around -- "We’ve got to play the plays better, and we’ve got to coach it better, and we’ve got to adjust it better" -- but he said the crux of the problem was that the Ravens simply gave up too much yardage on first down.
"That’s where we got in trouble," Pees said at his weekly media session on Thursday. "It’s hard when it’s second-down-and-4 and second-down-and-3. All of a sudden, now you’ve got to really try to tighten it down to get to third. ... We’ve just got to do a better job playing-wise, coaching-wise, the whole scheme-wise, of doing a better job on first down, especially first-down run."
By Pees' estimate, Buffalo gained 150 yards on first-down plays. The Bills, led by C.J. Spiller and Vincent Jackson, had 13 first-down runs of 5 yards or more. Even third-string back Tashard Choice took a first-down handoff for 7 yards.
That leads to second- or third-and-short, which leaves the defense back on its heels.
"Third-and-8, they got a lot more ground to cover, and we got some monsters that can pass rush," defensive end Arthur Jones said. "Third-and-2, a quarterback or a running back can always sneak through a small hole. It just puts strain on the defense."
The Ravens actually rank tied for sixth in third-down defense. Teams have converted 33.3 percent of third downs against the Ravens, and the Bills fared worse, going 5-for-18 (27.7 percent). But it only takes a couple of big first-down plays to get a drive moving in the wrong direction.
"Third-and-2, third-and-3 – [it’s] hard to defend some of the passes on the underneath routes," Pees said. "If you play man, the guy gets picked. If you play zone, you’re off a little too far. The whole playbook is open to the offense. When it’s third-and-eight, the whole playbook is open to us. So, we’ve got to get them to that.”