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BALTIMORE — The Ravens defense talked extensively about its need to be more dynamic and to finish stronger late in games after narrow losses to Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland over the last month.
A Hail Mary touchdown pass from Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to A.J. Green on the final play of regulation certainly jeopardized that goal, but the Ravens rebounded in overtime for a 20-17 win to not only snap a three-game losing streak but — for the time being, anyway — save their season. The last-second gaffe received much of the attention following the game, but the Baltimore defense’s aggressiveness in forcing three turnovers and sacking Dalton five times was the most encouraging takeaway from Sunday’s game.
After a series of solid performances that weren’t quite good enough in recent weeks, the Ravens defense was a game-wrecking unit against the Bengals for most of the afternoon on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Ravens offense looked a lot like, well, the Ravens offense after being held scoreless in the third and fourth quarters and failing to run out the clock after a James Ihedigbo interception with 1:55 remaining in regulation.
General manager Ozzie Newsome spent most of the Ravens’ resources this offseason to upgrade the defense, and the results have been solid but unspectacular. While certainly an above-average unit that entered Week 10 ranked 10th overall in yards allowed and points surrendered, the Ravens have lacked the ability to make game-changing plays (entering Week 10 ranked 11th in the AFC with only 10 takeaways) to support an offense that’s struggled mightily all season and have surrendered long second-half drives to eliminate potential comeback attempts.
Sunday’s performance against the league’s ninth-ranked offense and seventh-ranked passing attack was exactly what the Ravens needed to not only rebound from a disappointing first half but to give hope of advancing to the postseason for the sixth consecutive year. If the Ravens are to achieve that goal, a game-changing defense would provide a major shot in the arm to an offense that looks lost more often than not.
“We have the motto that once you put it on tape, that’s what expected of you,” said Ihedigbo, who had two interceptions but inexplicably batted the ball in the air to Green on the touchdown to force overtime on the final play of regulation. “Defensively, we played lights out today. I made the reference back to the 2000 defense — they didn’t give up anything to anybody. And when you go with that mindset, it shows on the field.”
Expecting them to rise to the level of the Super Bowl XXXV defense would be too much to ask, but the Ravens showed a level of aggression not seen all season with defensive coordinator Dean Pees calling an increased number of blitzes that led to Dalton being hit nine times, contributing to his completion percentage falling below 50 percent. However, the most dynamic change to Pees’ defense was the decision to move cornerback Lardarius Webb inside in the nickel package, a position he played with great success prior to the second ACL injury of his career last season.
The change led to Webb’s best game of the season as the fifth-year cornerback collected his first interception and made six pass breakups to go along with five tackles. On a day that included strong performances across the board in the secondary, Webb was the best player on the field for the Ravens.
It remains to be seen whether the Ravens will make it a permanent move as No. 3 cornerback Corey Graham lacks the ideal size to play on the outside — Webb previously played inside when the Ravens had the bigger Cary Williams available to play outside opposite Jimmy Smith — but the 5-foot-10 Webb played more aggressively than he has all season in blitzing from the nickel spot and getting hands up in passing lanes.
“That’s my thing. I always play outside because that’s where they wanted me and that’s where they need me,” said Webb about the position change in the nickel package. “I felt like with me playing safety in college and liking to tackle and eyes roaming sometimes, that’s just my spot. I like that spot; I felt comfortable. With that position, you get to tackle, you get to blitz, you get to cover, you get to do it all. You kind of just get to play football.”
The key to beating the Bengals was providing enough harassment on all levels of the defense to entice the bad Dalton to surface as he did in Miami in Week 9. A secondary that included three players listed as questionable on the final injury report of the week rose to the occasion and limited the Bengals’ big plays other than the 51-yard prayer that was tipped into Green’s hands to force the extra period. However, the defense rebounded to make a fourth-down stop of running back Giovani Bernard in overtime to give the Ravens the ball back at their own 44 before the final game-winning drive.
Third-year cornerback Jimmy Smith had one of his best days as a pro, making five tackles and breaking up two passes of his own, and Ihedigbo and rookie Matt Elam turned in strong performances at the safety spots as the Ravens broke up 17 passes in all. Of course, they could thank a ferocious pass rush led by Elvis Dumervil’s 2 1/2 sacks for lending a hand up front.
“Our secondary played tremendously well,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Everybody is going to talk about the last play [in regulation], which is a shame in some ways. Maybe you will talk about the whole game. I thought the pressure was very good, but our secondary covered a very talented and gifted receiving corps all day.”
The Ravens offered a glimpse on Sunday of what they’ll need the rest of the way to give themselves a real shot down the stretch. The offense was again miserable beyond an ability to capitalize on good field position a couple times in the first half and to put together a 28-yard drive in overtime to set up Justin Tucker’s 48-yard field goal to win the game.
Baltimore must have the dynamic, game-changing defensive effort it got Sunday on a regular basis because the offense continues to show no signs of real improvement. It’s no secret that the Ravens lack balance and have struggled in all three phases of the game at different times this season, but Sunday’s win represented a successful attempt to augment the team’s biggest strength.
The challenge will be repeating it moving forward.
“We have to play great as a defense if we want to get back on track,” Webb said. “And today, from the [defensive] line with all the pressure [to] the turnovers, we played great as a defense as a whole. We’ve got to keep getting our hands on the ball. If we keep getting turnovers, then we can keep winning.”