The talk of record breaking began late in the Ravens’ 21-0 win Sunday over the Tennessee Titans with a play that, by that point in the afternoon, must have sounded like a broken record: There was another sack. The Ravens had taken down Marcus Mariota again. This time, for the ninth time.
“I think it was [at] nine,” recalled outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, and the historical significance of that number was obvious then only to a select few on the team’s sideline.
Defensive line coach Joe Cullen knew that that was a franchise-record-tying mark. So did assistant defensive line-outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins. Early in the fourth quarter of a game in which the Ravens didn’t give the Titans anything, they were one play away from a record for the taking.
Word leaked out. Eyes got big. The pass rush continued.
“It’s time to go hunt,” defensive tackle Willie Henry said. “We heard that, it was time to pin our ears back.”
“They said if we get one more, we’re going to break a record,” Smith said. “So we went and got two more, right?”
They went and got two more. The Titans (3-3) had entered their Week 6 matchup having allowed nine sacks in five games. The Ravens (4-2) had gone nearly seven years without a nine-sack game. But as the sun set in Nashville, they had a performance as worthy of remembering as any of the city’s country-music classics: 11 sacks, one short of the NFL record. No other team this season has had more than seven in a game.
With the Titans’ 66 yards lost on sacks, the Ravens easily outgained them 361-106. Tennessee never got particularly close to the end zone, and its game ended with an unwanted place in Nissan Stadium history. Never before in the venue’s nearly two-decade existence had the Titans been shut out at home.
Smith finished with a career-high three sacks. Inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor had a pair. Outside linebackers Matthew Judon and Terrell Suggs, inside linebacker Kenny Young, safety Tony Jefferson, defensive lineman Chris Wormley and defensive back-linebacker Anthony Levine Sr. each added one. In all, the Ravens finished with more sacks of Mariota than the Titans quarterback had completions (10-for-15 for 117 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions).
“It was a team effort,” coach John Harbaugh said. “You just felt the pocket collapse. I think he got out two or three times. … I don’t think you can really say who got the sacks as much as it could’ve been anybody, because were were just rushing so well, rushing our gaps so well. We’re very disciplined, and the sacks kind of ended up going to where Marcus tried to escape more than anything.”
After a disappointing performance in the Ravens’ 12-9 overtime loss to the Cleveland Browns, a showing that looked like a throwback to his days of check-down passes and dispiriting drives, quarterback Joe Flacco was back to his early-season self.
Against one of the NFL’s top defenses, he finished 25-for-37 for 238 yards, one touchdown and an interception that, at least on replay, appeared to hit the ground as Titans safety Kevin Byard secured it. The Ravens offense opened the first and second half with long, drawn-out drives that ended in the end zone.
The first: a 17-play, 94-yard, nine-plus-minute drive capped with Flacco's 4-yard pass to wide receiver Michael Crabtree in the end zone. The last: a 12-play, 78-yard, seven-plus-minute possession that culminated with running back Alex Collins' stroll to the goal line. In between, Collins rumbled in from 13 yards early in the second quarter.
But all the Ravens really needed to do Sunday was end their touchdown-less streak of seven-plus quarters. Actually, all they might have needed was a field goal. Their defense did the rest.
“Defensively, we felt like we let the team down” against Cleveland, safety Eric Weddle said, though the Browns offense was no better than the Ravens’ for much of the day until marching downfield on the game’s decisive overtime drive. “We didn’t get the stops in the end, and we wanted to take it to the next level. … We felt like we could have played better, and we need to play better. Everyone had that focus the entire week, and individually getting better, and really just having that focus to dominate a game and to really be a great defense.”
After the Ravens’ breathtaking defensive performance, Mariota was left quite nearly speechless. At the start of his postgame news conference, he was asked whether he’d ever been in a game like that one. “No, that was a first,” he said. He was next asked about the postgame feeling after a game like that one. “Not very good.”
There was only so much the Titans could say about the game. Harbaugh was more than happy to share the praise: for the interior linemen who bottled up Mariota; for the pass rushers who got to him; for the secondary that made no throws easy and often kept Mariota looking, looking, looking until it was too late.
Their pass-rushing pace had a rhythm all to itself. In between the Ravens' ninth and 10th sacks, they waited a whole eight minutes. But they did not hesitate to put distance between themselves and all future challengers to their sack supremacy. First, Onwuasor brought down Mariota for a 7-yard loss late in the fourth quarter. Two plays later, Smith secured his hat trick with a 4-yard takedown, the 11th of the day.
Mercifully, it was the Titans' last play from scrimmage. They never got the ball again. That was perhaps for the best.
“We’re trying to get the record,” Henry said. “As anybody that’s out here trying to compete at the highest level, you want to put your name in the record books — definitely an organization like the Baltimore Ravens’ on defense, where you can put your name on something like that. Of course you’re trying to go hunt. You’re trying to go get that record.”