BALTIMORE — The impact of Ray Lewis cannot be measured in tackles, interceptions, or sacks.
Sooner rather than later, the Ravens will face the scary reality of life without the future Hall of Fame linebacker permanently, but they held up well enough in securing a 31-24 win over the Cincinnati Bengals to regain control of the AFC North on Sunday.
While Lewis watched from the sideline after missing his first game since the finale of the 2007 season — which ended a stretch of 57 consecutive starts — the Baltimore defense allowed a season-high 483 yards and nearly squandered a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter in a performance that reminded many of the Bengals’ comeback victory in Baltimore in 2004. Lewis certainly wouldn’t have been covering the Bengals receivers who roamed free at several points as rookie quarterback Andy Dalton threw for 262 yards in the second half, but his cerebral and emotional presence was unquestionably missed.
However, the Ravens defense came through when it needed to, picking off three passes and holding on at the end after Dalton threw a beautiful 43-yard pass to Jerome Simpson to give the Bengals a first-and-goal at the Baltimore 7 with just over a minute remaining. The pressure then came as Terrell Suggs forced an intentional grounding penalty and rookie Pernell McPhee closed out the victory with a sack on fourth-and-goal from the 17.
It wasn’t perfect, but the Ravens will take a division win however they can get it — especially without Lewis roaming in the middle of the defense.
“It’s always tough playing without your leader,” said safety Ed Reed, whose interception late in the second quarter halted a Bengals drive and ended a personal eight-game drought without a pick. “But, like I told the guys, there are 53 leaders on this team, and the guys know it. Ray wanted to give everything to be out there. We told him to just stay focused and do what you need to [do] to get yourself back.”
The offense did their share to the tune of 31 points as quarterback Joe Flacco threw two touchdown passes and Ray Rice reached the 100-yard mark (104) on the ground for the third time this season and first since running for 101 against Houston on Oct. 16. The robust offensive output came after a sluggish first quarter in which the Ravens produced only 27 total yards.
With the lackluster performance in Seattle on everyone’s minds, the Ravens displayed no sense that lightning would strike again after falling behind 7-0 as the teams entered the second quarter.
“What goes through your mind as a coach is, ‘Let’s weather this,'” coach John Harbaugh said. “‘Let’s be poised. Let’s not overreact. Let’s not panic, and we can work through it.’ If you do that, I think your players have a chance to respond the same way. They did a good job with it.”
As a result, the Ravens improved to 15-17 all-time without Lewis playing.
Smith shines as Evans returns
Veteran wide receiver Lee Evans made his much-awaited return to the field on Sunday after missing the Ravens’ last seven games with an ankle injury, but rookie Torrey Smith made a strong statement that he has no intentions of relinquishing the starting job.
Smith turned in a career-high 165 yards on six catches, which included a 38-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter to give the Ravens a 31-14 lead. In the process, the second-round pick from Maryland set a single-season and single-game record for receiving yards by a rookie. Smith now has 590 receiving yards, besting former first-round pick Mark Clayton’s 471 in 2005.
Not only had a Baltimore receiver never posted two 150-yard receiving games in a season, but Smith’s 165 yards ranked third-most in team history behind Qadry Ismail (258 vs. Pittsburgh in 1999) and Derrick Alexander (198 vs. Pittsburgh in 1996) in a single game. His fourth-quarter touchdown proved to be the game-winner after the Bengals’ late comeback, giving him the deciding score in back-to-back games against AFC North opponents.
“It’s just football, understanding the game plan, understanding my role, and basically understanding that every little thing you do is important,” Smith said. “Every catch, every missed block, every penalty — everything is important. Those are things you can’t afford, especially in this division.”
Smith’s day could have been even bigger had his dreadlocks not let him down in the second quarter. After catching a pass in the middle of the field and momentarily looking like he was going to take it all the way, Bengals cornerback Adam Jones pulled him down by the hair after a 28-yard gain inside the two-minute warning. Two plays later, Flacco threw an interception to halt the drive.
“That was my first time having it happen,” said Smith, who claimed the hair-pull did not hurt. “I was in shock. I straightened up my back thinking he was going to try to grab my jersey. Next thing I know, I’m getting pulled by my dreads.”
In contrast, it was a quiet return for Evans, who was targeted once on a deep pass but did not register a pass in his first action since a Week 2 loss in Tennessee. However, the 30-year-old felt fine after the game and said his return is still a “work in progress.”
“It was good to get back out there,” Evans said. “A lot of plays were made downfield. Torrey made some great plays down the field. It was good for me to get back and for Joe to throw one out to me.”
Touchdown or not?
The overturned touchdown to Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham will be hotly-contested throughout the week after referee Ron Winter changed the call on the field of a touchdown on a juggling catch with cornerback Cary Williams covering on the play.
Winter’s explanation that Gresham failed to control the ball when he hit the ground was reminiscent of the controversial reversal of a Calvin Johnson touchdown in Chicago when the recevier failed to complete the process of the catch. The Bengals contested that Gresham possessed the ball prior to breaking the plane of the goal line.
“I thought I caught the ball outside, going in,” Gresham said. “I see runners all the time going in, drop the ball, so I thought that would be the call. But I’ve got to catch it the first time.”
When asked about the call following the game, Harbaugh made it clear how he felt about the decision but went on to explain why he likes the rule.
“I think it draws a bright line,” Harbaugh said. “I think what you want to do with the officials is you want to draw a bright line, catch or no catch. All the players know now, when you go to the ground, you have to come up with the ball in both hands.”
Fair enough, but it would be interesting if Harbaugh would have felt the same way had the Ravens been on the opposite end of that particular play.
All about turnovers