Ravens hand Broncos first loss

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BALTIMORE | Before they were even halfway through their schedule, the Baltimore Ravens already had experienced the highs and lows of an NFL season.

An impressive first three weeks of the season had the Ravens in the company of the NFL’s elite. But a three-game skid in October - by a combined 11 points - left the Ravens searching for answers.

And in overwhelming the previously undefeated Denver Broncos 30-7 at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, the Ravens made a critical step in righting their season.

“What you got to understand about this league is that everything isn’t always going to go the way you want it to go,” receiver Derrick Mason said. “And even when it does go your way, it might be hard. We were able to fight through that 0-3 skid we were on and continue to play hard. If you play hard in this league, you are bound to work yourself out of a situation.”

The Ravens’ defense, which for the past decade-plus consistently has been one of the stingiest in the NFL, spent Baltimore’s bye week in unfamiliar territory - trying to figure out what was wrong. The Ravens yielded an average of 383 yards in their three losses and let a pair of running backs - Cincinnati’s Cedric Benson and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson - run for more than 100 yards after not allowing a 100-yard rusher in 39 games.

But the Ravens were locked in from the opening kick, and the first play from scrimmage foreshadowed the events of the next three hours: Linebacker Jarret Johnson came untouched from the outside and sacked Denver quarterback Kyle Orton.

The Broncos (6-1) had just 79 yards of offense in the first half and 200 for the game. Punter Mitch Berger was called upon eight times on the afternoon, and Denver’s lone touchdown drive was aided by 44 Baltimore penalty yards.

The Ravens (4-3) were well-prepared for Denver’s West Coast passing game. They repeatedly sniffed out Denver’s short crossing patterns and rarely allowed yards after the catch. The Broncos didn’t deviate from their game plan, shying away from deep passes, but that played right into Baltimore’s hands.

Orton was limited to 152 passing yards and didn’t throw a touchdown for the first time this season. The Broncos’ most dangerous big-play threat, wide receiver Brandon Marshall, was held in check with four catches for 24 yards.

“We had a great game plan, and we executed,” Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. “Any time you can keep the ball in front of you, it becomes an easy game for you.”

Baltimore’s offense stalled in the first half, but the Ravens got the big play they were looking for out of special teams when rookie Lardarius Webb returned the second-half kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown and a 13-0 lead.

Then the Ravens’ offense found its stride. Denver’s unblemished start to the season was in large part thanks to its defense having allowed only 10 points in the second half all season. So the Ravens started the second half in a no-huddle to counter the Broncos’ aggressiveness, and the result was a pair of scoring drives that put the game out of reach.

First was a 10-play, 69-yard march late in the third quarter sparked by long run by Ray Rice (23 carries, 84 yards). The drive stalled because of a penalty, and the Ravens had to settle for a field goal.

But on their first possession of the fourth quarter - a nine-play, 73-yard drive - the Ravens’ offense finally broke through when Joe Flacco found Mason in the end zone with a 20-yard scoring strike.

“We wanted to keep the pressure on them,” Mason said. “In order to beat a very good defensive team, you’ve got to put pressure on them. You’ve got to keep them on their heels. You can’t allow them to just sit there to play what they want to play. Whether it’s successful or not, you’ve got to be willing to do some things that they haven’t seen. We wanted to keep the momentum going in the second half, and it worked for us.”

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