Behind throwback defensive effort, banged-up Ravens enter bye week at 3-1

October 03, 2011 | Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens’ 34-17 victory over the New York Jets was far more bizarre than it was convincing in how Baltimore displayed its supremacy over Rex Ryan’s mistake-prone football team on Sunday night.

A combined five touchdowns were produced via takeaways and special teams, including a franchise-record three defensive touchdowns by the Ravens.

The quarterbacks, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez, combined to complete just 21 of 66 passes and were responsible for six turnovers.

The Ravens produced a robust 165 yards of offense in the first quarter but followed the hot start with a sickly negative-2 yards in the second quarter while carrying a 27-17 lead into halftime. Flacco was 8-for-17 for 142 yards in the game’s first 15 minutes before going more than two hours until he completed his next pass to rookie LaQuan Williams with 11:50 remaining in the fourth quarter.

It was one of the worst performances of Flacco’s four-year career, but it did come against a Jets secondary widely-regarded by many as the best in the NFL and entered Sunday as the sixth-best in the league.

But, the Ravens won the game and improved to 3-1 atop the AFC North as they head into their Week 5 bye.

“It wasn’t too pretty, but any time you get a win in the NFL it’s a good one, especially when you are playing a good team like that,” said Flacco, who finished 10-for-31 for 163 yards and threw an interception returned 35 yards by linebacker David Harris for a touchdown in the second quarter. “Our defense really showed up today. I thought we were able to do some things really well on offense early on. It was a great team win.”

The victory resembled the Ravens’ dominating defensive efforts of old as the Jets were held to just 150 total yards, the ninth fewest allowed by the Ravens in the history of the franchise. Jameel McClain, Jarret Johnson, and Lardarius Webb scored touchdowns off turnovers as the Ravens battered and bullied Sanchez throughout the night, pressuring the third-year quarterback into mistake after mistake.

It was, as the elder statesman Ray Lewis put it, an “old-school” performance by the Baltimore defense.

And the Ravens needed it as Flacco and the offense resembled those past groups that rode the coattails of the defense to a victory.

“It was the best defensive performance I thought I’d ever seen,” coach John Harbaugh said, “and the most amazing defensive performance I thought I’d seen was the Pittsburgh game with the seven turnovers against that offense. But, this topped it. To have three returns for touchdowns off of turnovers by your defense, has it ever been done before? … That’s pretty impressive to say the least. It was a team victory, but our defense carried us.”

What made the performance even more impressive was the patchwork secondary used by defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano as cornerbacks Chris Carr and Jimmy Smith and versatile safety Haruki Nakamura were inactive due to injuries, and safety Tom Zbikowski left the game with a concussion. Former practice-squad cornerback Danny Gorrer saw extensive work in the nickel package, and the Ravens were down to just two healthy safeties at game’s end.

The most encouraging sign was the continued contributions of role players substituting for starters in different packages as Pagano used the likes of Pernell McPhee and Paul Kruger in pressuring Sanchez. The Ravens sacked the Jets quarterback twice and hit him 10 times, virtually wiping out the big-play ability of Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Buress (a combined six catches for 66 yards).

“It just shows our potential, our depth,” said Johnson, who scored on a 26-yard fumble return midway through the second quarter. “I don’t know how much you guys notice how much we roll, especially our sub package. I mean, we’re constantly rolling guys in, which we’ve never really done. I’ve never come off the field before, and now Kruger’s rolling in. We’re rolling [defensive backs] in. The interior with McPhee and Art Jones coming in, made some huge plays at the end of the game. We haven’t done that in a long time. We haven’t had this much depth.”

Starting cornerbacks Cary Williams and Lardarius Webb held up well in pass coverage, thanks in large part to the miniscule time afforded to Sanchez by the Baltimore pass rush. Williams led the team with eight tackles, and Webb’s 73-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter ended any brief hopes of the Jets climbing back into the game as the Ravens increased their lead to 34-17.

While most assumed starting duties would fall to the rookie first-round pick Smith — sidelined since suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 1 — and Domonique Foxworth (on injured reserve) before the season started, injuries have forced Williams and Webb into starting roles. The results of their individual performance have been mixed, but the Ravens are 3-1 after disposing of two of the better teams in the AFC through the season’s quarter pole.

“I tell them, ‘You are the key to us; be great,’” Lewis said. “There are two kinds of people: people that are going to watch people make plays and there’s the person that’s going to make plays. For them to keep playing the way they are playing, and play at the level they are playing at, it’s beautiful to watch.”

Harbaugh said it all in his post-game comments referring to the seven players on the Ravens’ inactive list for Sunday night’s game. In addition to Carr, Smith, and Nakamura, the Ravens were without starting left guard Ben Grubbs, starting wide receiver Lee Evans, kickoff returner David Reed, and reserve inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe.

While it’s true that every team deals with injuries — just ask the Super Bowl champion Packers of a season ago — there’s something to be said about the Ravens’ success in dealing with a number of key ailments to win three of four games to hold a one-game lead over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the division.

The bye can’t come at a better time for the Ravens, as most of the seven aforementioned players will be returning or, at worst, will be close to returning against the Houston Texans on Oct. 16.

“We are looking to get some rest, come back completely healthy,” Lewis said. “We get Lee Evans, we get Jimmy Smith back, we get a lot of people healthy back. We are really looking forward to that.”

Many people — including Harbaugh — predicted the Ravens would be a much better football team by season’s end than they would be to start. It was a fair assessment given the number of departing veterans and young players expected to fill prominent roles prior to the start of training camp.

But, after winning three games by a combined score of 106-31 mixed in with a 26-13 loss to the surprising 3-1 Tennessee Titans, it’s fair to say the Ravens are already a darn good football team.

And with improved health and the return of several key contributors, the potential is there to get a lot better.

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