Jamie Sharper played perhaps the most inspired game of his three-year career. Peter Boulware, growing more comfortable dealing with a shoulder problem that has saddled him all year, turned in his best performance of 1999.
And together, the Ravens' two outside linebackers took some of the spotlight and the pressure off middle linebacker Ray Lewis, the quarterback of the 4-3 defense.
Not that Lewis was absent in yesterday's 17-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns. With eight solo tackles, two assists and a sack, he was typical Ray Lewis.
But Lewis enjoyed the type of support he had yet to see this season.
Sharper, who plays on first and second down, then sits during passing situations, made the most of his time by recording a game-high 10 solo tackles. No one got in the way of Browns running back Terry Kirby more than Sharper.
Boulware complemented Sharper with six tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble that set up the Ravens' first touchdown. That represented an encouraging development for a guy who, just two weeks ago in the season opener in St. Louis, looked extremely tentative while playing with a harness to protect his injured right shoulder.
"It's time for us to step up," said Boulware, referring to himself and Sharper. "Ray has been playing awesome and making great plays. It's time for me and Jamie to support him and do what we're supposed to do."
Boulware got warmed up quickly yesterday. On the game's third play from scrimmage, he blew past tight end Mark Campbell to drop quarterback Tim Couch for a 6-yard loss. Early in the second quarter, he made his team-high fourth sack count for extra credit, by hitting Couch inside the Browns' 5 and knocking the ball loose.
Defensive end Michael McCrary (five tackles, one sack) recovered at the 1, setting up a Stoney Case touchdown run that gave the Ravens a 10-0 lead with 10: 31 left in the second quarter.
"That felt good. It let me know I can go out there and be effective, even with a bum shoulder," said Boulware, referring to his two sacks. "Whenever you get that first sack or make that first big play, you get real loose."
Sharper, who ranks second on the team with 26 tackles and is off to his best start since the Ravens drafted him in the second round in 1997 out of Virginia, also was loose from the outset.
There were only four Browns possessions in which Sharper failed to make a tackle. He spent equal time stuffing runs inside and outside, as well as the occasional pass to Kirby out of the backfield.
"I'm just trying to help out, and I can't miss tackles," said Sharper, who has played a more physical brand of football this year than in his previous two seasons.
"For me to make plays, I've got to come in on first and second down and get guys down on the ground as soon as possible, so the defense is on the field in a third-and-eight instead of a third-and-four. I'm only in there for half as many snaps as Ray."
Sharper credited linebackers coach Jack Del Rio with simplifying his approach to playing the position. Del Rio played the position for 11 years in the NFL.
"Jack has helped me out a lot as far as reading plays better," Sharper said. "I've been stuffing screens much better this year."
Sharper was at his best in the third quarter, when the Ravens started to take control of the game by grabbing a 17-3 lead. On the Browns' second possession, he dropped Kirby for a 1-yard gain on first down, putting Couch in obvious passing downs for the next two plays. The Browns punted.
He tackled Kirby for no gain on the first play of the next drive, starting a three-and-out sequence.
"We [linebackers] don't want to leave any tackles for the defensive backs," Sharper said. "We want to make all of the tackles."