Game 4: Ravens stick it to Titans

Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher reportedly told his players during the week to hit the Ravens with a 2-by-4.

Instead, the Ravens cold-cocked his Titans with a hammering defense. Learning of Fisher's comments only moments before the game, the Ravens uncorked a furious rebuttal in a 26-7 defeat of the Titans before a club-record 69,494 at PSINet Stadium yesterday. With the 14th victory in their past 15 tries, the Ravens (3-1) remained tied with the Cleveland Browns atop the AFC Central while dealing divisional rival Tennessee (0-3) a serious blow to its playoff hopes.

The added motivation in this bitter rivalry was supplied during warm-ups, when Ravens coach Brian Billick was informed of an ESPN report in which Fisher said to his team: "I don't care if you go 0-3, just come out hitting with a 2-by-4." Billick swiftly relayed the news to his players.

The Ravens' unforgiving defense stifled the Titans, holding them to 185 yards of total offense and allowing them no farther than Baltimore's 28-yard line. The seething response was unleashed in knocking out two of Tennessee's top offensive weapons - running back Eddie George and tight end Frank Wycheck - in the third quarter and battering quarterback Steve McNair for three sacks and two interceptions.

The Ravens' running game returned to its pounding style, cranking out a season-high 207 yards behind a mauling offensive line.

"They [the Titans] need to bring a bigger stick next time," Billick said.

The Ravens' third straight win over the Titans came with surprising ease.

As their defense allowed just one drive into Baltimore territory, the Ravens took a 17-0 lead in the second quarter on the strength of the resurgent running game and a 77-yard strike from Elvis Grbac to Qadry Ismail. The shutout ended in the final minute of the third quarter, when Tennessee returned a blocked punt for a touchdown.

"It was supposed to be two heavyweights," Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "Well, one heavyweight showed up."

If the Ravens' defense made a statement of its return last week in Denver, this prideful group delivered a declaration of dominance yesterday.

The Ravens didn't surrender a first down until the second quarter. They didn't let the Titans cross the 50 until the final minute of the first half.

The sure-tackling defense held a stonewalled George to just 26 yards and forced him out of the game with a sprained ankle on the final play of the third quarter. Of George's 13 carries, the Ravens held him to 2 yards or less nine times.

This punishing opening stretch has the Ravens upstaging their recent past. With a quarter of the season complete, the Ravens' defense is ahead of last season's pace, when it set the NFL's 16-game scoring mark.

"There shouldn't be any doubt that the Ravens' defense is still here," cornerback Duane Starks said. "Our defense isn't going anywhere. We're going to go out each week and try to get a shutout. Basically, we got one today."

The Ravens' usually slow-starting offense handed the defense a lead by scoring for the first time on its opening series.

Running back Terry Allen ran for 22 of his season-best 108 yards on that first drive and put the Ravens ahead, 7-0, on a 9-yard burst. That provided some satisfaction for Grbac, who received a rude welcome to this rivalry.

"One of their defensive tackles was talking a little smack to me during warm-ups, and that kind of fired me up before the game," Grbac said. "So, it was good to go out on the first drive and kind of shove it down their throat."

The Ravens lengthened their lead to 14-0 five minutes into the second quarter when they picked on former teammate DeRon Jenkins, a second-round pick in 1996.

Running a simple go route down the right sideline, Ismail got a couple of steps on Jenkins and caught the pass at the 35-yard line. After a lunging Jenkins missed the tackle, Ismail cruised into the end zone for the fourth-longest reception in Ravens' history.

"We came in knowing that we got to man-to-man coverage and I'll put the ball up and those guys are going to have to catch some balls," Grbac said. "You don't get too many opportunities in the NFL like this. We just out-schemed them a little bit and made bigger plays than they did."

A couple of field goals by Matt Stover increased the Ravens' advantage to 20-0 in the third quarter, but the Ravens gave a minute of hope to the Titans.

Tennessee's Donald Mitchell came through untouched to block Kyle Richardson's punt, returning it 26 yards for the score. The first touchdown allowed by the Ravens at PSINet this season cut the margin to 20-7 with 49 seconds left in the third quarter.

The Titans increased the pressure when they recovered the on-side kick. But the drive stalled after four plays at the Ravens' 43 and the momentum was gone.

The Ravens closed out the game by grinding out a 10-play, 82-yard drive behind Allen and backup running back Jason Brookins, whose first career touchdown with 6:49 left capped the scoring.

"When we bounced back from the blocked punt and the onside kick," strong safety Corey Harris said, "they dropped their heads a little bit."

By game's end, the Ravens had silenced the Titans with a workmanlike performance, riding a physical running game and a brutally honest defense.

"If you come to play us," defensive tackle Sam Adams said, "instead of bringing a 2-by-4, bring your hard hat and your lunch pail."

Fisher could only agree.

"We kind of got our butts kicked today," Fisher said. "I just told the team that we got beat by a better team."