CLEVELAND — Brian Billick tossed out the bait last week and his defense snatched it up like another unprotected football.
Looking to the history books for their motivation, the Ravens smothered the Cleveland Browns with their second straight shutout and third of the young season yesterday.The 12-0 victory before a paid crowd of 73,018 at Cleveland Browns Stadium was less about art than realism. And reality said the hottest defense in the NFL is setting standards that will be hard to match.
History? The last team that threw back-to-back shutouts was the 1985 Chicago Bears. The last team that collected three shutouts in one season was the 1991 Washington Redskins.
Bottom line: Both teams won Super Bowls.
Billick, the Ravens' full-time psychologist and part-time historian, didn't miss his chance.
"We threw that out to our guys as a challenge," the Ravens coach said of the 15-year drought in back-to-back shutouts. "And that is no disrespect to the Browns. It didn't matter who we were coming in against."
The Ravens have two road wins this season and both are shutouts. They have won seven straight games against AFC Central Division opponents. They haven't allowed a touchdown in more than 133 minutes, dating to early in the fourth quarter of their loss in Miami. At 4-1, they enjoy the best start of their short Baltimore tenure.
In this case at least, domination starts with defense.
"Every NFL team has a $62 million salary cap," said defensive end Rob Burnett. "We're shutting them out, the best of the best, every week. We play the best available athletes money can buy.
"To be able to get a shutout in this league is phenomenal."
The Ravens have three shutouts in five games this season, four in their past seven. With Matt Stover kicking four field goals, they preserved yesterday's shutout with four turnovers and a resiliency in the red zone.
They were creative beyond conventional means. When the Browns (2-3) set up at the Baltimore 8 after a 38-yard pass from quarterback Tim Couch to David Patten in the second quarter, defensive back Robert Bailey forced Marc Edwards to fumble on consecutive plays.
The first came on a short pass at the 4, and Edwards fell on his own fumble. On the next play, the Browns ran Edwards up the middle, and the blitzing Bailey stripped the ball. That was recovered by Ravens safety Rod Woodson in the end zone.
"On the first one, I tried to hit him and drive my arms inside, and the ball came out," said Bailey, a free-agent addition in the off-season. "But it bounced right back to him.
"The second one, he was holding the ball on his side and I just jumped on him and swiped at his hand, and the ball came out."
Twice in the fourth quarter, the Browns drove inside the Ravens' 20, only to be denied the end zone. Ray Lewis' interception on a ball thrown right at his chest at the 15 snuffed one Cleveland threat. And a fourth-down tackle by nickel back James Trapp on a short pass to rookie back Travis Prentice finished it off.
Yes, the Ravens took the shutout bait. For the record, those 1985 Bears beat Dallas, 44-0, on Nov. 17, and Atlanta, 36-0, a week later.
"We talked about it all week," Bailey said. "We talked about it on the field. We talked about it when we were in the red zone.
"Basically, I was saying to the guys, `This is the red zone, this is what we're all about. Let's not let them in, let's get the ball.' That's what happened."
In the city that made the Dawg Pound fashionable, Woodson made an appropriate canine analogy about the Ravens' red zone success.
"You see those dogs when they're getting chased and their hair raises up," Woodson said. "It's like, `I've got my house here, I've got to fight a little bit.'
"I think when they get down there, we get a little more aggressive. I think our character and pride come into play, and we play a little harder, a little more focused."
Lewis described the atmosphere in the red zone in simpler terms.
"It's gut-check time," he said, "and we look each other in the eyes and say somebody's got to make a play."
A week after the Ravens ravaged the Cincinnati Bengals for four touchdowns and 37 points, their offense sputtered against the Browns' injury-depleted defense.
"We had as many mental errors in the first half as we've had since I've been here," said quarterback Tony Banks, who completed 18 of 34 throws for 169 yards and one interception. "We didn't have that passion.
"We didn't attack with the run the way maybe we should have with their injury situation."
The Browns were without starting linebacker Rahim Abdullah and his backup, Lenoy Jones. The Ravens balanced the scale by playing two backup tackles in the second half after Harry Swayne and Jonathan Ogden went out with sprained ankles.
After rushing for 81 yards in the first half, the Ravens rushed for 107 in the second. Rookie Jamal Lewis led the team with 86 yards, but played sparingly after halftime because of a hip pointer. Priest Holmes picked up the slack and gained 68 of his 82 yards in the second half.
"I was very gratified by the physical play in the second half," Billick said.
He was more gratified by his defense, which he described as "magnificent."
The shutout talk was the right touch.
"We have to get motivated somehow," Burnett said. "What better motivation than to be in the record books. I think it worked."
Even as the words Super Bowl have crept more and more into the Ravens' vocabulary, Burnett was cautiously optimistic.
"I'm not going to start blowing smoke, or make predictions, or print Super Bowl tickets yet," he said. "But so far, so good."