The Ravens' defense has shown significant improvement over the first six weeks of the season, but when the group got together Saturday night, the players were told they weren't doing enough.
In a passionate speech at the team hotel, Ravens linebackers coach Ted Monachino challenged the group — and several players individually — to play better.
"He asked me, 'Have I got started yet?' I said, 'No, I'm just getting started,' " Ravens outside linebacker Pernell McPhee said. "He challenged us. He told us we're not playing like a defense that we should be playing [like] for the talent we got."
The defense's response Sunday afternoon in front of an announced 71,184 at M&T Bank Stadium overwhelmed the Atlanta Falcons. They smothered Matt Ryan and the NFL's third-ranked offense in a 29-7 victory that pushed the Ravens to 5-2 and into first place in the AFC North.
Terrell Suggs' late fourth-quarter safety of Ryan — the first in the Ravens linebacker's career — epitomized a dominant defensive effort for the home team. The Ravens sacked Ryan five times, forced one turnover, held the Falcons to a combined 5 of 18 on third- and fourth-down conversion attempts and limited Atlanta to 254 yards of total offense.
The Falcons (2-5) had come into the game averaging 410 yards per game, but they had no answers for the pass rush of the Ravens, who now have 10 sacks and 24 quarterback hits in the past two weeks.
"Ted Monachino came out with a good speech last night, and the answer to that is we're just getting started," said Ravens strong-side linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who had two sacks in the game and now has a team-leading seven for the season. "That kind of was the theme of our speech. Good things, great things are expected from this defense. We work hard all year, from camp, mini-camp, so our motto is 'We're just getting started.' "
The victory, coupled with the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-0 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, put the Ravens atop the division for the first time all year. They go on the road to second-place Cincinnati (3-2-1) on Sunday, followed by a matchup against the third-place Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3) the following week.
"I think we've just been building," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "I think we have been putting one brick on top of the other and going through a process and trying to get better every single day. When you can do that, you can move down the road and improve, and our guys take it seriously. They come to work every day. They bring their lunch box, they bring their blue shirts and they go to work, and that's how you become a good football team."
It's certainly helped the Ravens that this is the year that they were scheduled to play the NFC South. In three victories, the Ravens have outscored the Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers, 115-34, including a 76-7 edge in the first half.
Against the Falcons, the Ravens led 17-0 at halftime and held a 20-0 advantage heading into the fourth quarter. Really, the only drama left in the final quarter was whether the Ravens would get their first shutout since November 2009 against the Cleveland Browns.
However, Ryan ended that by hitting Roddy White for a 4-yard touchdown pass with 7:12 to play in the game to cut the Ravens' lead to 20-7.
The Falcons got the ball back with just under four minutes to play, but after a penalty and two incompletions, Ryan was sacked in the end zone by Suggs. The Ravens' all-time sack leader, who had several near misses of Ryan earlier in the game, celebrated the team's first safety since 2008 by tossing the ball into the stands.
"It just shows what we can do," Suggs said. "Like I said, it's on film now and everybody is seeing how our defense can kind of control games, and that's going to be the standard from now on. We're 5-2, we had a good game today, but we don't want to stop there. We want to kind of get this thing snowballing and keep going."
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco completed the scoring by hitting Torrey Smith for a 39-yard touchdown pass with just under two minutes to play. The play came on fourth-and-9 with the Ravens holding a 15-point lead. Harbaugh went for it, partly because long snapper Morgan Cox had sustained a season-ending knee injury earlier in the quarter.
Several Falcons didn't look happy and former Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson even appeared to point toward the home sideline. But there was nothing that Atlanta could do at that point. They were outplayed in every way. They were outgained 371-254 in yardage and lost the time of possession battle by almost seven minutes.
"That's why they are a really good defense," said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who was just 29 of 44 for 228 yards, one touchdown and one lost fumble. "They put a lot of pressure on us. They do a great job playing well within their schemes."
Much of the talk heading into the game was about the duel between Ryan and Flacco, the only two quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2008 draft. Neither was at their best, though Flacco certainly had a lot more help and a lot less resistance from the opposing defense.
A week after throwing five touchdown passes in just more than 16 minutes of the first half against the Buccaneers, Flacco went 16 of 25 for 258 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He got things started by hitting tight end Owen Daniels for a 5-yard touchdown pass on the Ravens' first drive, and he finished with the scoring throw to Smith.
In between, Flacco threw two end zone interceptions to Robert Alford, but the Falcons couldn't convert either of those — and not Jacoby Jones' muffed punt late in the second quarter — into points.
"Our defensive front, man, they're really good," Flacco said. "We go against them all of training camp and all of the offseason. We know how good they are, so it's nice to see them really, really get after it. They're giving out [defensive backs] chances. There are a lot of chances for some big plays out there for those guys, and we all know how much those kinds of plays turn games and really get you over the next level."
After the game, McPhee pondered Monachino's message Saturday night and maintained that the Ravens were nowhere near satisfied. As Dumervil pointed out, they are just getting started.
"I thought we played pretty well, [but] I think we could play better than that," McPhee said. "I think we could start shutting out teams."