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Ravens’ porous secondary can shoulder the blame

FOXBOROUGH — The Ravens almost pulled off the miracle.

Despite having one of the worst secondaries in the NFL, the Ravens came close to advancing to the AFC Championship game. But in the end Saturday, they couldn't overcome their Achilles' heel.

The Ravens twice held a 14-point lead, but they couldn't stop Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who completed 33 of 50 passes for 367 yards and three touchdowns. Another 51-yard touchdown pass came on a gadget play.

With the game on the line, Brady engineered a 10-play, 74-yard touchdown drive and capped it with a 23-yard strike to wide receiver Brandon LaFell. He beat cornerback Rashaan Melvin down the left sideline with 5:13 remaining.


It was the end of the game, end of the season.

The Ravens had tried to get through the season masquerading their problems on the back end of the defense with a ferocious pass rush led by outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. Suggs turned in a solid game but Dumervil was nowhere to be found.

The Patriots did exactly what the San Diego Chargers did to the Ravens several weeks ago. They nullified the pass rush with short passes, and beat up on the Ravens cornerbacks. The Patriots didn't even try to run the ball.

On the deciding drive, Brady carved up the Ravens secondary with short passes. There was a 7-yarder to LaFell, and two catches of 8 and 6 yards by receiver Julian Edelman. Brady also had completions of 4, 6, and 9 yards before hitting LaFell with the game-winner.

The Ravens had their cornerbacks playing off the line of scrimmage most of the game because they didn't want to give up big plays, and that's what the Patriots wanted. But if you choose that strategy, a team has to be able to tackle after the reception.


And the Ravens failed miserably there. Second-year safety Matt Elam was horrible in trying to tackle in the open field. Cornerback Lardarius Webb never jumped a route. Melvin was the Ravens' leading tackler with 11, but that was more of an indictment of how he got picked on instead of how he played.

If you wanted to see poor technique, all you had to do was watch Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski catch a 5-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter.

Gronkowski lined up on the outside and was covered by safety Will Hill. On the snap, Gronkowski got inside for a short slant in and touchdown reception. Coming off the line, Hill never put his hands on Gronkowski.

How can the Ravens not jam the best tight end on the planet in that situation?

This game started to unwind for the Ravens in the second half. As long as quarterback Joe Flacco was hot and running back Justin Forsett kept pounding away at the Patriots, the Ravens were in control. But there is a weakness in January Joe's game. When he gets hit, he gets rattled. Most quarterbacks do, but Flacco can check out of a game for a half.

During this postseason the offense had to carry the Ravens, and 31 points is good enough to win most games. But when a team gets to this point in the playoffs, weaknesses are exposed — such as the Ravens' secondary play.

You might be able to hide them against quarterbacks named Ryan Tannehill and Blake Bortles, and maybe escape a great one like Ben Roethlisberger, but it's hard in a three-games series against a Roethlisberger, Brady, and Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck.


Looking back, the Ravens might have handled their problems in the secondary differently, but it was impossible to predict the large number of injuries suffered by this group. General manager Ozzie Newsome might have made some moves late in training camp when the Ravens were without Jimmy Smith and Webb because of injuries, but it's hard to find a shutdown cornerback.

Keeping it all in perspective, the Ravens were fortunate to get this far, especially after backing into the playoffs.

But when it ended, it was going to end like it did Saturday night. It's a quarterback-driven league and all of the teams in the final eight had good quarterbacks. But most of them have at least one great cornerback, too.

In fact, the Patriots have two. The Ravens had none and no playmaker at either of the safety positions, either.

And Brady and the Patriots made them pay.

Follow Mike Preston on Twitter @MikePrestonSun.