OWINGS MILLS – No NFL teams thought that Jameel McClain or Albert McClellan were worthy of investing a draft pick in them after respectful collegiate careers.
The Baltimore Ravens' faith in the two former undrafted free agents proved justified Thursday night, though, as they capably stood in for injured All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis and inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe.
McClain and McClellan combined for a dozen tackles during the Ravens' 16-6 victory over the San Francisco 49ers as they provided a run-stuffing presence to shut down star running back Frank Gore.
"I know it was big shoes to fill with Ray out, but I wasn't nervous," said McClellan, who started his first NFL game with Lewis sidelined with a toe injury for the second consecutive game. "It was a dream come true. I felt good. I just didn't want to be too fast to the ball. I felt like I played really good."
"Ray told me what he saw on film. He's more experienced at watching film and picking up tendencies. He let me know what he saw and to be patience. Patience is a virtue. It was a huge night, another milestone personally."
With Gore gaining a season-low 39 yards on 14 carries, it forced beleaguered quarterback Alex Smith to attempt to do more than manage the game. And he collapsed under the relentless pressure of the Ravens' front seven, sacked a franchise-record nine times.
Special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo filled in, primarily operating on third downs and contributed four tackles on defense.
The Ravens lined up McClain at the Mike or middle linebacker, where Lewis normally runs the show.
And McClellan shifted over to McClain's usual spot at Will or weakside inside linebacker since it would have been nearly impossible for McClellan to call the defensive signals.
"It made it a lot easier for me communication-wise," said McClellan, a former Marshall University standout. "I'm kind of mad that I was close to getting a sack and I missed that opportunity. I missed a tackle for a loss. I was excited. I was hustling out there."
For the most part, the Ravens' defense has held together in Lewis' absence.
They're undefeated in both games he's missed and rebounded from an inconsistent game against the Cincinnati Bengals by allowing only 170 yards of total offense Thursday, suffocating the 49ers' offense.
"Exactly, we all can play ball, and that's what we're showing," McClain said. "Through this time off, we get Ray back and a lot of people have seen the growth in the linebackers, and have seen that we can step it up too. Now that we get Ray and Dannell back, it's going to get dangerous."
Ellerbe started at middle linebacker against the Bengals, but missed the 49ers game with hamstring and groin injuries.
It was McClellan's first game every playing inside linebacker having lined up on special teams previously and playing defensive end and outside linebacker at Marshall.
And this was a time when McClain was needed to lead the defense in terms or calling signals and keeping things organized.
"It's great that Jameel could step up like that," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "If Ray Lewis ever steps out like that again, we know what we're going to get out of McClain."
One game after the Ravens had communication issues in the secondary, McClain improved in terms of getting the calls to safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard.
McClain had the microphone in his helmet to get signals from defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano.
"Jameel's been very important," Pollard said. "He's talking, he's communicating. I think last game it was a
communication thing with us, and just getting that thing out, but we were vocal this week, as far as getting ready for this game on a short week, and I thought we did a really good job.
"He can't slack because we need him. He has the mike in his ear, the earpiece in his ear, so he has to be the mike
for us. He's stepping into some big shoes, but he's ready and he's doing a great job."
McClain tied Pollard for the team lead with eight tackles.
"His leadership in the huddle has been excellent," defensive end Cory Redding said. "It's almost like Ray is still out there. He's seen Ray do it so much that he just took it into his own and made the defense his own.
"It's awesome to Jameel go out there and play really good football and take control of the defense, give us the calls, make all the right checks and just get us all lined up so that we can play good team defense."
The Ravens are hoping that Lewis and Ellerbe will be able to return in time for their Dec. 4 game at the Cleveland Browns.
If they're out again, though, the defense has confidence in his replacements.
"That's the thing about this league, you have to be a pro at all times," Pollard said. "When your name is
called, you have to be ready to step up. We miss Ray, but the game isn't going to wait for him to heal up.
"The game isn't going to wait for any player to heal up. The game must go on, and we did a great job tonight and we're excited. We're hoping and praying that Ray has a speedy recovery, we know what kind of player he is, but we've got to be ready to go."
Ravens notebook: Pitta delivers game-winning touchdown
OWINGS MILLS – Dennis Pitta sharply cut across the middle on a slant pattern, establishing position in the end zone in front of strong safety Donte Whitner to provide an easy target for Joe Flacco.
And Flacco delivered a strike to the Baltimore Ravens' tight end, finding Pitta for an eight-yard score in the fourth quarter that was the game-winning touchdown in a 16-6 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
"I had to cut across the safety's face and leverage him and give Joe a chance to throw me the ball," Pitta said. "He put it on my chest perfectly, I shielded the safety and made the catch. What a pivotal play for us in that game, and it helped us gain the momentum and start to pull away in the fourth quarter."
The clutch play by the former fourth-round draft pick from Brigham Young represented the first touchdown of his NFL career.
"It was fun," Pitta said. "Hopefully, there's more to come. What a big play in the game, and it was fun to have it there."
And it was Pitta who caught a deflected Flacco pass earlier in the drive to convert a 3rd-and-6 situation with an 11-yard catch for a first down.
For the season, Pitta now has 27 receptions for 263 yards and a touchdown to rank fifth on the team in catches.
Starting tight end Ed Dickson has 43 catches for 392 yards and three touchdowns.
"Dennis has just been special," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "When they're playing man coverage, he got across the safety space. That's not easy to do. To jam that route back inside, and Joe found him, that was really impressive."
So were the Fu Manchu mustaches that Flacco and Pitta were sporting as a goofy gag.
It resembled a cross between the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" video and the Village People.
"Just trying to get everybody to do it, trying to get everybody to get on the bandwagon here on our offense," Flacco said ."It's kind of tough convincing everybody to get really ugly. A lot of great teams, they always have their signature thing that they go through a season with, and we're just trying to create one. I think after playing the way we did, maybe I'm starting to get a couple followers."
Pitta said the mustaches are here to stay as long as the Ravens keep winning.
"We'll stick with it as long as we're winning and let the power of the ‘stache continue," Pitta said. "What better way to mix it up than having an ugly mustache?"
Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs wasn't exactly approving of the old-school look.
"He can keep it as long as we win," Suggs said. "I think the moment we start not being ourselves, that's got to go. He's the quarterback, he has to have swag."
CAUGHT IN THE WEBB: Cornerback Lardarius Webb is having a breakthrough season after struggling in the playoffs last season when he allowed a long pass to Antonio Brown in the Ravens' AFC divisional playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Webb picked off 49ers quarterback Alex Smith in the end zone, undercutting big wide receiver Braylon Edwards.
Now, he has a career-high four interceptions with five games to play in the regular season.
Free safety Ed Reed ranks second on the team with three interceptions.
"The front seven was working, making our job easy," Webb said of the Ravens tying a franchise record with nine sacks. "So, hey, if the front seven keeps playing the way they played, then you'll see more games like this. It's very easy, because they have to get the ball out right now.
"They can't let their routes develop, because they are so quick. So, if we can just hold our technique long enough, our guys are going to get there. We just wanted to get some turnovers in the back end – not the front seven – we want some interceptions. And we're just trying our best to get more than one."
MATTISON JOINS RAMS: Cut by the Ravens so they could promote rookie linebacker Josh Bynes on Wednesday, offensive lineman Bryan Mattison got a new job Friday after clearing waivers.
He signed with the St. Louis Rams, who placed offensive tackle Jason Smith on injured reserve with a concussion.
The son of former Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, Bryan Mattison plays center and guard and played in eight games this season and two last year for Baltimore.
"We thought it was a pretty good move at this time," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo told reporters.
"We thought it was a pretty good move at this time," Spagnuolo said.
SMITH HONORED: Wide receiver Torrey Smith was named the Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week.
Smith was voted in by fans, beating out Miami Dolphins fullback Charles Clay, Carolina Panthers defensive end Thomas Keiser, Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker and Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller.
Smith caught six passes for 165 yards and a touchdown in the Ravens' 31-24 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
He was also named AFC Offensive Player of the Week.
NO SACKS ALLOWED: The Ravens' offensive line gave up no sacks for the first time this season.
They've surrendered only two sacks in the past three games, giving Flacco plenty of time to operate.
"I didn't even know that," six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk said. "They're a great defense, first of all. We just battled out there. Giving up no sacks speaks as much as guys getting open and Joe getting rid of the ball quickly as much as it does to the protection. We had a chance to stay balanced and ran the ball the whole game and didn't turn the ball over."
INJURY REPORT: The Ravens reported no new injuries.
However, running back Ray Rice had his hand and thumb taped up after the game.
TIME OFF: The Ravens' next practice is Monday, so they have some down time before beginning preparations for the Cleveland Browns.
"I'm going to be with my family, give thanks, celebrate Thanksgiving and get as much turkey in my system," Birk said. "If everything goes perfect, I'll catch a nap on the couch in the afternoon. That's about as good as it gets."
PRAISE FOR CAMERON: The Ravens were stubborn with the run even though it was tough sledding against the 49ers' top-ranked run defense.
They ran the football 35 times for 92 yards, and threw 23 times for 161 yards.
It was an effective strategy by oft-criticized offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
"I thought Cam called a winning game plan," Harbaugh said. "You talk about discipline and sticking to the plan and staying patient when he had to against this team. I think Cam Cameron deserves a lot of credit.
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