If this is the Ravens' road back to the Super Bowl, the path may seem like memory lane.
Relying on a defiant defense and a one-trick offense, the Ravens opened their title defense with a 17-6 victory over the Chicago Bears before 69,365 at PSINet Stadium yesterday.The defense again served notice, barricading the end zone in familiar fashion while solving a gimmick Bears offense after halftime.
The offense again served up a one-dimensional attack, as new quarterback Elvis Grbac took over the role of workhorse for injured running back Jamal Lewis. In his Ravens debut, Grbac completed 24 of 30 passes for 262 yards and a touchdown, marking the highest completion percentage in team history.
"Any time you get a win under your belt, you'll take it any which way," Grbac said. "Obviously, we've got a lot of improvement to do on the offensive side of the ball. To put our defense out there as much as we did, we've got to improve on that if we want to repeat."
In the Ravens' 12th consecutive win, Grbac's arm towed the offensive load.
His 6-yard pass to fullback Sam Gash late in the third quarter put the Ravens up for good, and his 25-yard strike to receiver Patrick Johnson in the fourth set up the other touchdown.
"I'd love to have Jamal and be able to run [for] 150 yards," tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "But all things being equal, I'll take No. 18 [Grbac]."
A new beginning with Grbac coincided with the celebrated return of the Ravens' defense.
After initially struggling against Chicago's hurry-up spread attack, the defense dug in after halftime. The Ravens started whacking away the quick, short passes by Bears quarterback Shane Matthews and gave up just 36 yards of total offense in a dominating second half.
The resilient effort marked the sixth time in the past 10 games that the defense did not permit a touchdown. "They came out and played flag football," said linebacker Jamie Sharper, who had a team-high 12 tackles. "But they couldn't score on us. Period."
The Bears pounced early with a field goal on their opening drive, and the Ravens tied the game on Matt Stover's 37-yard field goal as the first half ended.
After the Bears converted a fumble by Terry Allen to move ahead 6-3 in the third quarter, the Ravens' offense put together its most impressive drive two series later. Grbac completed passes of 24, 12 and 15 yards before showing patience inside the 20.
On a first-and-goal at the 6-yard line, Grbac made eye contact with Sharpe on a corner route, but resisted the temptation to throw into double coverage. He looked to his first option in the right flat, where Gash was wide-open.
Gash's second touchdown of his two-year Ravens career staked them to a 10-6 lead with 1:48 left in the third quarter.
"I knew I was probably going to be open," Gash said. "The fullback is usually the uncounted man. Who looks at the fullback?"
Unlike last season, this offense had trouble maintaining the momentum. On the second series after taking the lead, Jermaine Lewis lined up in the backfield and then coughed up the Ravens' second fumble of the second half.
But the defense showed it hasn't lost its touch for the dramatic. Three plays after that fumble, Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis got the ball right back, intercepting a pass that was deflected by Sharper and running it back 21 yards to the Bears' 34-yard line.
Three minutes later, Allen scored on a 1-yard run to increase the margin to 17-6 late in the fourth quarter.
"You can't play the style of what we're going to have to do and turn the ball over," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "That's a concern. We were pretty good last year, and we've got to get back to that."
The formula has been tweaked, however.
The NFL's fifth-ranked rushing attack a season ago, the Ravens gained just 54 yards on 30 carries, with no run more than 8 yards. But Allen had his moments, producing 26 of his 37 yards on the two touchdown drives.
"It was better late than never," Billick said. "They dropped an eighth guy down in the box a lot more than I thought they would initially and left themselves vulnerable to the pass. They had a good game plan, but, fortunately, we were able to crack it."
Said Allen: "We started running straight at them. We gave our offensive line a chance to get the big guys moving sideways and then me cutting back underneath them. It started to work out. Once you get the offensive line in a rhythm, then the back can get in a rhythm."
After the pre-game celebration for the Super Bowl champions, the Ravens turned the fans' roar into silence.
Committed to a fast-break but conservative game plan, the Bears held the ball for 21 1/2 of the game's first 30 minutes. Matthews completed 16 of his first 23 passes for 116 yards, as Chicago reeled off 14- and 15-play drives.
Despite all the time, the Bears managed just a 20-yard field goal by Paul Edinger. The Ravens made two goal-line stands on the game's first drive. By game's end, the Ravens had wrestled back the tempo, intercepting Matthews twice in the final six minutes.
"Our philosophy is they don't score, they don't win," Lewis said. "We'll give up a field goal here or there, and you may make us mad. Just for them to get down to the red zone, we knew we had to buckle down."
For now, the road back to the Super Bowl title has begun on a reminiscent first step.
"It's time to start this thing all over again," Sharpe said. "I think everybody enjoyed what happened last year. Now, we have to move past that. I'm not thinking about last year. All my energy is focused on getting back to the same point."