Ravens face another tough challenge in Bengals

Based on first impressions, the Ravens won't back down from a fight.

That fortitude will be put to the test again Sunday, when they have to beat the Cincinnati Bengals and the challenges of a quick turnaround.

The Ravens have to travel to face the defending AFC North champion only six days after winning a physical 10-9 road game against the New York Jets. Over the past two seasons, NFL teams are 1-4 when playing on the road after a Monday night road game.

"It's very difficult," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, whose team arrived back in town at 3:30 Tuesday morning. "But you know what? It doesn't matter because that's our challenge. That's a team that beat us twice handily last year, both at our place and at their place."

Confronting challenges has become an early theme for the Ravens, even before their season kicked off.

During warm-ups at New Meadowlands Stadium, Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis pushed running back Ray Rice away by shoving him back by his face mask. Rice retaliated by throwing a football at the 6-foot-6, 290-pound lineman.

"No matter how small I am, I'm not going to back down," said Rice, who is 5-8 and 212 pounds.

The offense then scrapped back after turning the ball over on three of its first four possessions, driving 76yards to punch in the game's only touchdown.

The defense held tough after the Jets started four drives at the Ravens' 37-yard line or closer. The result: three field goals.

"We have a rule: If they don't score, they don't win," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "When the first turnover happened, the first thing we said is, 'They're not going to score.' And we just did what we do best."

What the Ravens do best under Harbaugh is spoiling other teams' celebrations.

The Ravens closed down Dallas' Texas Stadium in 2008 with a 33-24 upset win. This time, the Ravens ruined the Jets' opening night at New Meadowlands Stadium.

"It seems like every time a team requests us, we beat their [butt]," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "Teams had better quit calling us out. If you want to fight, we'll fight."

Here are five other first impressions from the season opener:

Ray Lewis can still hit.

Some will debate whether the 35-year-old linebacker has lost a step. Yet no one will question his ability to smack players -- especially after a week of trash-talking.

In the third quarter, Lewis disrupted a third-and-2 when he crushed fullback Tony Richardson in the backfield, allowing LaDainian Tomlinson to be stopped for a 1-yard loss. The exclamation point came with 47seconds left in the game, when Lewis leveled tight end Dustin Keller to break up a pass over the middle.

"Anytime you challenge a warrior," Lewis said, "a warrior is going to respond."

The offense can generate big plays with its physical receivers.

A week ago, Harbaugh said the lack of a deep threat was a "little overblown." The results of the season opener backed up his point.

Joe Flacco completed four passes over 20yards against the Jets because he trusted his receivers to compete with defensive backs and come down with the ball. He hit Anquan Boldin for completions of 38 and 27yards, connected with tight end Todd Heap for a 35-yard pass and found T.J. Houshmandzadeh for a 27-yard gain.

This is different from last year, when the Ravens had Mark Clayton and Kelley Washington among their top three wide receivers. The Ravens didn't produce four pass plays of more than 20 yards in 14 of 18 games last season.

Concern on punt returns.

The Ravens didn't want to reveal their returner before the game, but the bigger mystery was Tom Zbikowski's decision-making.

With the Ravens holding a 10-6 lead in the third quarter, Zbikowski fielded a punt at his 5-yard line and tried to make a play by running along his team's goal line before getting tackled just outside his end zone. Zbikowski should have either signaled for a fair catch or let the ball bounce. Instead, he risked giving the Jets the go-ahead score.

Harbaugh called Zbikowski's performance "disappointing," but he didn't seem ready to replace him with Chris Carr. Zbikowski averaged 11.5 yards on punt returns in the preseason.

"We never rule anything out," Harbaugh said. "I think Zibby can be good at it."

Flacco caused fans to scream when he held the ball too long at times and missed an open Le'Ron McClain for a touchdown, but the real measure of the quarterback's progress from last season was on third downs.

Against the Jets, Flacco completed nine of 14 passes (64 percent) for 137 yards on third downs. That's a marked improvement for the NFL's 15th-best passer on third downs a year ago.

The lack of a running game increased the difficulty, too. Flacco converted four long third downs ( 9 yards or more).

The defense will be elite if it continues to play tight pass coverage.

The secondary's impressive effort will likely come with an asterisk because it was against underwhelming quarterback Mark Sanchez. Still, the coverage would have forced any quarterback to throw into tight windows.

The Ravens weren't playing Cincinnati's Chad Ochocinco or Terrell Owens, but they weren't playing at full strength either.

Zbikowski filled in for Ed Reed at safety, and Carr replaced Domonique Foxworth at cornerback. The biggest surprise of the night was Haruki Nakamura's play at nickel back, a wrinkle the Ravens have been working on for the past month.

If the Ravens keep blanketing receivers (and do so without committing penalties), this defense will continue to rank among the best in the NFL.

"We can't gloat about our performance," Carr said. "We want to be consistent. And that's the true sign of a great secondary."



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