It went unsaid in the Ravens’ defensive huddle. The proof was on the scoreboard and in the number of times defensive players jogged back onto the field in the first half after having little more than a moment to grab a drink of water and touch base with their position coach.
Joe Flacco was struggling, the running game was going nowhere and even normally-reliable kicker Justin Tucker was missing wide right. If the Ravens were going to avoid a demoralizing loss to the Cleveland Browns in their home opener, it was going to be because of the same unit that was picked apart by Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos just 10 days earlier.
The defense responded Sunday, holding the Browns scoreless in the second half as the Ravens did just enough offensively to grind out a 14-6 victory in front of an announced 71,098 at M&T Bank Stadium.
After getting shut out in the first half for the first time since last season, the Ravens (1-1) scored two second-half touchdowns: a 5-yard run by Bernard Pierce and a 5-yard touchdown pass from Flacco to rookie Marlon Brown. They then let the defense do the rest and the result was the beleaguered Browns punting on four of their final six possessions and getting stopped on fourth down on their other two.
“You all want to play phenomenal defense. You all want to play great at home,” said rush linebacker Terrell Suggs who had one of his team’s five sacks. . “We know when [Flacco] gets in his flow, he’s Joe Cool, he’s never rattled. When he gets in his flow, he’s going to be special and he’s going to do some great things. It’s just all the time, the defense has to do its part and hold the levees until Joe can start opening it up.”
Flacco went 22-of-33 for 211 yards and one touchdown, an uneven performance under unique circumstances. Flacco learned about two hours before the game, after he had just completed his initial warm-up on the field, that his wife, Dana, had just given birth to the couple’s second child in New Jersey.
Flacco never considered missing the game and after taking the final kneel down, he rushed off the field and got changed so he could rush to New Jersey and be by his wife and new child’s side later in the evening.
“Anytime you have a child, it’s one of your best days,” Flacco said. “The game didn’t go exactly how we wanted it to, but that’s how we’ve won football games around here. We’re able to win like this, and sometimes you have to do it an ugly way.”
The Ravens’ 11th straight victory over the Browns (0-2) certainly was ugly at times and it also could be costly in the long run. Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice went down without being touched because of a hip injury early in the fourth quarter. The initial diagnosis was a strained left hip flexor but Rice’s status for next Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans is uncertain.
On offense, the Ravens gained 122 yards and scored zero points in the first half and they again struggled to hold onto the ball and extend drives. Tucker’s two first-half misses — from 44 and 50 yards — were one fewer than he missed all of last season. Before getting injured, Rice lost his fourth fumble in the past six games and averaged just 2.8 yards per carry. On defense, there were still breakdowns in the Ravens’ secondary, including one that resulted in a 53-yard completion to tight end Jordan Cameron on the Browns’ first play from scrimmage.
But the Ravens, who had their Super Bowl XLVII championship banner uncovered in a brief pre-game ceremony, survived, thanks to a second half commitment to the running game and a pass rush that supplied consistent heat on quarterbck Brandon Weeden and his backup, Jason Campbell who played one series after Weeden was knocked out late in the fourth quarter with a thumb injury.
“When Joe put up points, it was like sharks. It was blood in the water and we pinned our ears back,” said Ravens defensive tackle Arthur Jones, who had a sack and three tackles after being sidelined the past couple of weeks with an irregular heartbeat. “We know that any time we put up points and the clock is rolling down, it’s time to perform. It’s time to get after the quarterback.”
The Ravens limited the Browns to two first-half field goals by former teammate Billy Cundiff and then didn’t allow anything over the final 30 minutes, holding the Browns to just 85 yards of total offense, and a 2-of-8 performance on third down.
This after the Ravens allowed 510 yards of total offense and seven touchdown passes to Manning in a 49-27 loss to the Broncos on Sept. 3. Of course, nobody needed a reminder that the Browns are not the Broncos.
“I felt like it was a boxing match,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “The guys hung in there. The defense kept on fighting. In the end, it shows you how to face adversity. We were down for a moment and we just kept fighting. In the end, the offense came through for us.”
Pierce said that the offense sat down at halftime and ultimately decided that it needed to establish the run early in the third quarter.
On their first drive of the second half, the Ravens went 80 yards on 12 plays to take the 7-6 lead on Pierce’s touchdown run. Flacco converted three third downs with completions, including threading the needle on a 23-yard pass to Torrey Smith (seven catches for 85 yards. But the Ravens ran the ball on nine of their 12 plays on the drive.
“Nothing mattered — doesn’t matter what down and distance it was, doesn’t matter was play was called,” said Pierce, who finished with 57 yards on 19 carries. “We just have to run the ball, so we all got together and got it going.”
In the second half, the Ravens produced 174 yards of total offense and went 7-of-9 on third downs. On the possession that ended with Flacco finding Brown for the 5-yard touchdown pass, the quarterback hit Brandon Stokley for 16 yards on third-and-10, and Brown for 18 yards on third-and-8.“They’ve got confidence in Joe,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve got a veteran offensive line that can kind of keep everybody understanding that everything is not going to happen right away, and you can’t panic. You do have to keep playing and we did a good job of that."