Vulnerable against the run, stonewalled by blockers and often susceptible to speedy receivers, the Ravens' defense is rarely described as stingy nowadays.
The last remnants of what was once a stout defense were on display Sunday when the Ravens' backs were against the wall in the red zone.
During the Ravens' 25-15 escape of a road victory over the Cleveland Browns, the defense managed to stiffen when it absolutely had to by limiting the scoring to five Phil Dawson field goals.
Instead of being gashed one more time by star running back Trent Richardson or picked apart by quarterback Brandon Weeden in those key situations, the Ravens shut the Browns down as they failed to score any touchdowns in five red-zone opportunities.
"We always live by bend but don't break," Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We knew we couldn't give up no touchdowns, or it would be a long ride home. We did what we had to do."
Although Richardson rushed for a game-high 105 yards on 25 carries, his impact was negated in close quarters.
In his five red-zone carries, the former Alabama standout was held to just 4 yards.
"That's our thing as Ravens, that's pride," nose guard Terrence Cody said. "We don't let guys get in the end zone. We refuse to let you in the end zone."
Heading into Sunday, the Ravens ranked 28th in total defense and 30th by allowing 400 yards of total offense per contest.
Yet the defending AFC North champions ranked 11th in red-zone defense by limiting opponents to 13 touchdowns in 28 trips inside their red zone for a 46.4 touchdown percentage.
"We know where we're at on the football field," free safety Ed Reed said. "We know what our job is. Before they even get to the red zone, our job is to keep them out of the end zone. We made plays down there. That's part of the game we take a lot of pride in."
It was far from a sterling performance by a defense that entered the game ranked 30th against the run with 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns allowed on the ground in the first seven games.
However, holding the Browns to 117 rushing yards qualifies as progress for a defense that had given up 622 rushing yards in the previous three games. That included 214 yards surrendered to the Kansas City Chiefs, a franchise-record 227 yards to the Dallas Cowboys and 181 rushing yards to the Houston Texans.
The Browns finished with 290 yards of total offense and 17 first downs.
"Yeah, it was a fight," said inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who led the Ravens with nine tackles, three quarterback hits and recorded their only sack. "It was also heart-wrenching. You don't like to be in games that close.
"We were trying to get three-and-outs, but were giving them stuff and busting coverages. It was kind of frustrating, but we pulled it out."
Regardless of whether it was strong safety Bernard Pollard, middle linebacker Jameel McClain or Reed coming up in run support to snuff out run plays, the Ravens' old aggressive mentality showed up in the red zone.
During the second quarter, Richardson tried to run behind left tackle Joe Thomas, but outside linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive tackle DeAngelo Tyson held him to a yard.
On the ensuing play, Richardson tried to rumble off right guard and Pollard and Ellerbe combined to stop him with a tackle after gaining another three feet.
"That has to be a pride thing down there, protecting our end zone," Pollard said. "We're not going to be perfect all the time, but this was a good day for our defense. [Defensive coordinator] Dean [Pees] made some great calls, and our players stepped up when we were supposed to."
Pees dialed up several run blitzes to counteract the power and speed of Richardson, a stocky 5-foot-9, 230-pound rookie.
It wasn't always an effective strategy in the first half when Richardson gained 76 yards on 14 carries, but the Ravens' gap integrity, tackling and penetration improved in the second half.
"He's a tough, hard back to stop," said Cody, who went to Alabama with Richardson. "He reminds me of Marshawn Lynch or Michael Turner, but he has more athleticism than those guys."
After the Ravens executed some halftime adjustments, Richardson only rushed for 29 yards on nine carries in the second half.
"He's a good, patient back," Suggs said. "He's pretty dangerous."
Besides slowing down Richardson, the Ravens also intercepted Weeden twice. Cornerback Cary Williams and Reed both picked him off.
For a defense that has drawn heavy criticism all season and endured the losses of middle linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb to major injuries, this was a rare triumph — especially after experiencing so many breakdowns during an embarrassing 43-13 loss to a Texans offense headlined by running back Arian Foster prior to a bye.
"It's more of a personal win for us," Cody said. "That's because we had doubts coming in and people were against us and saying, 'We're this,' and, 'We're that.' That's why we're so excited and happy."
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