The Ravens' plan for what they wanted to become as a defense and how they would make that happen was established early in the offseason. The Ravens finished last year with a top-10 defense statistically, so revamping the unit wasn't wholly necessary. But Ravens coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees believed a refocusing was in order.
The defense needed to get to the quarterback and create turnovers more often. That was obvious. The Ravens' defensive coaches also thought the defense needed to confuse opposing quarterbacks, in addition to harassing them.
Minus one drive, or one missed tackle on Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor, the Ravens executed Pees' game plan to perfection Sunday. The Ravens held the Bills scoreless for the game's final 33 minutes and without a first down for the entire fourth quarter. The defense got its reward as they watched Joe Flacco kneel down and kill off the final two minutes of a 13-7 victory over the Bills in front of an announced 71,104 on a sunny and pleasant afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium.
"It was scripted just how you envisioned it as a defensive player," said safety Eric Weddle who had four tackles and a pass breakup in his Ravens' debut.
The season-opening victory featured an electric 66-yard scoring strike from Flacco to Mike Wallace, the emotional return of Dennis Pitta, the long-awaited debut of Breshad Perriman, and a clutch third-and-short conversion from Terrance West that allowed the Ravens to run out the clock.
However, for much of the game, the Ravens' offense played like a group that hadn't been on the field together much during the preseason and training camp. After taking a 10-0 lead at the 10:11 mark of the second quarter when Flacco audibled out of a run play and found Wallace matched up in the middle of the field against safety Duke Williams, the Ravens didn't score again until Tucker's 37-yard field goal with less than six minutes to go.
"I think we did a lot of good things, but sometimes we find a way to make it tough on ourselves and play games like this week, where you're squeaking out wins and fans are at the edge of their seats at the end of games," said Flacco who completed 23-of-34 passes for 258 yards and a touchdown, but was sacked four times. "It would be great to throw for 180 yards in the first half and be up by three scores. We let them hang around and had to win the game in the last couple of minutes."
That was only possible because the Ravens' defense repeatedly repelled the Bills. With former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan on the Bills' sideline and long-time star safety-turned-assistant defensive backs coach Ed Reed in Buffalo's coaching box, it was a fitting time for the Ravens defense to take over a game.
"It's started feeling a lot like Raven football with people having fun out there," Ravens defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said.
The Bills gained just 160 yards, the lowest total an opponent has produced against the Ravens since the 2011 New York Jets, also coached by Ryan, managed just 150. They had just 12 total yards in the first and fourth quarters combined. Buffalo might not have scored at all had Taylor not made an athletic play to get out of a sack attempt by Albert McClellan, spin away from Terrell Suggs and hit tight end Charles Clay for a 33-yard gain. LeSean McCoy plunged in on 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line four plays later to cut the Ravens' lead to 10-7.
Otherwise, Taylor, the former Ravens backup who had 40 or more rushing yards in nine games last season, completed 15-of-22 passes for a mere 111 yards and rushed five times for just 11 yards. The Ravens sacked Taylor twice and made eight tackles for losses, including three by cornerback Shareece Wright.
"We flew around to the ball," McClellan said. "There was a flock of Ravens out there today."
The Bills' final offensive play proved to be a microcosm of their afternoon. Buffalo trailed by six with less than five minutes to play and had a third-and-6 from its own 26-yard line. Taylor rolled out right and was running for his life when Suggs took down his former teammate for a 12-yard loss.
"They came after us," Taylor said. "They showed us things we hadn't seen before, on third down especially. They brought a lot of pressure and they were very effective."
The Bills went 3-for-13 on third downs and their stars were mostly bottled up. Taylor was indecisive all afternoon. McCoy had 20 touches but amassed only 70 yards. Standout wide receiver Sammy Watkins, shadowed all afternoon by Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith, had just four catches for 43 yards.
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"It's the first game, but I feel like it's important," Smith said. "The question marks somewhat have been answered a little bit in the first game."
McCoy was one of several Bills who acknowledged Ravens occasionally did confuse the Bills. The Ravens rotated a ton of defensive personnel. Safeties Lardarius Webb and Weddle were used interchangeably, and defensive backs frequently came in on blitzes. Linebackers rushed the quarterback one play and then dropped back in coverage the next.
"I think that's a pretty darn good defense over there," said Ryan, who is now 0-4 against his former team.
Several Ravens worked hard to keep things in perspective. It was Week 1, after all and the Bills aren't offensive juggernaut. Nor are the Cleveland Browns, the Ravens' opponent next week. But the early signs were encouraging, and they interrupted some negative trends from last year.
The Ravens had hoped the addition of Weddle and moving Webb from cornerback to safety would cut down some of the big plays allowed. Not once did a Bills player get behind the defense. With defensive coordinator Dean Pees now calling plays on the sideline rather than the coaching box, Suggs back from his Achilles injury and Weddle as the "quarterback" on the back end of the defense, the team hoped to improve its communication. McClellan said the communication was as good as it's been since Reed and Ray Lewis were the leaders of the Super Bowl defense.
After several blown leads last year, the Ravens' defense, and the secondary in particular, was at its best in the fourth quarter.
"Our corners just played elite football out there," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "If we can play like that in the back end, we're going to have a chance to win some games."