Inspired by a spinal cord concussion suffered by safety Dawan Landry in the final seconds of the first half, the Ravens' top-ranked defense grabbed control of the contest with two pivotal interceptions by Chris McAlister and Ed Reed during the opening two drives of the second half.
In the span of less than a minute, the defense reclaimed its tradition of dominance to propel the Ravens to a 28-10 victory over the winless Browns on Sunday before 71,104 at M&T Bank Stadium.
First, middle linebacker Ray Lewis bashed tight end Kellen Winslow on a hit over the middle on the third play of the third quarter to pop the football into McAlister's hands. He returned it to the Browns' 12-yard line to set up fullback Le'Ron McClain's one-yard touchdown run for a 14-10 lead.
Just three plays later, Reed read quarterback Derek Anderson's eyes and returned it 32 yards for an untouched touchdown. The former NFL Defensive Player of the Year was already sprinting toward the intended target before Anderson released the football to boost the Ravens to a commanding 21-10 advantage.
"I think it all started with us losing Landry," linebacker Terrell Suggs said of Landry, whom team officials said has movement in all his extremities after being taken to Maryland Shock Trauma for tests. "We lost one of our soldiers because we weren't really playing Ravens' defense upfront. They were able to do whatever they want, and that's not how we play football and we end up losing a guy.
"It kind of hit the rest of the 10 guys that were out there. We got in the locker room and Rex Ryan cussed us out the way he usually does. We came out fired up and it started with a big hit from Ray. After that, it just snowballed. We just kept going. I knew it was just a question of when."
Indeed, they did.
The Ravens (2-0) sacked Anderson five times with two coming from Suggs' pass rush.
And they intercepted him three times with Reed using his instincts and intelligence on his touchdown return for a franchise-leading 35th career interception.
"Coach told us just to be patient, let the game come to us, figure out what they're doing and then strike," Reed said. "If you go back, they did the play like two plays before. They switched the personnel, the alignment of the two guys that they were running the same route with.
"I just felt it. I knew that was it, so when they threw it, I was just like, 'Catch it.' It's definitely film study."
Trailing 10-7 at halftime, the Ravens required just four plays from the offense in the third quarter to take an insurmountable lead.
The Browns had just 11 yards of total offense while the Ravens piled up 44 yards of interception returns.
"It's never a halftime speech, it was just a bunch of guys that decided to go out there and dominate," coach John Harbaugh said. "I think the words that Bart Scott used at halftime were 'focus and dominate.'
"Ed's play was huge. Ray obviously is a force in the middle of the field, and he had one huge hit. That was really a game-changer."
Unlike the season opener, the offense committed some turnovers as rookie quarterback Joe Flacco threw two interceptions, including his first NFL turnover in the first quarter on linebacker D'Qwell Jackson's interception. That set up Anderson 's 19-yard touchdown pass to running back Jerome Harrison.
Reed missed a tackle in the open field on Harrison's score as the imposing runner cut inside and barreled into the end zone.
Anderson completed all four of his throws for 40 yards after taking over at midfield.
For the game, the Ravens limited Anderson to 14 of 37 accuracy for a mere 125 yards. He finished with a paltry 22.9 quarterback rating.
"I'm just frustrated," Anderson said. "I expect more out of myself."
Then, the Ravens attempted some trickery on the ensuing drive.
Two weeks removed from a successful double reverse, a slow-moving lateral from running back Willis McGahee to Flacco ended in a turnover.
Flacco threw a bomb meant for wide receiver Derrick Mason into triple coverage and safety Mike Adams picked it off for a touchback.
Flacco went 13 for 19 in his second NFL start for 129 yards, no touchdowns and a 47.8 rating. The interceptions didn't prevent the Ravens from winning, though.
"You shouldn't have to play perfect to win," Harbaugh said. "If you're a good enough football team, you overcome mistakes.
"That's a confident bunch of guys. I think they expected to be 2-0. I think those players are exactly where they expected to be at this point."
In McGahee's first game of the season following arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, he scored on a five-yard touchdown run two drives later. McGahee (64 yards, 15 carries) punched it in to tie the score two plays after fullback Le'Ron McClain's 17-yard run down to the Browns' 4-yard line.
The Browns went ahead on Phil Dawson's 38-yard field goal in the second quarter following a 13-play, 76-yard drive.
With 26 seconds remaining in the first half, former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis' knee struck the crown of Landry's helmet and he was down on the turf for roughly 10 minutes before being carted off the field. Landry never lost consciousness, according to team officials.
McClain scored two touchdowns on a pair of one-yard runs as the burly 6-foot, 260-pounder finished with 66 yards on 17 carries.
His second score was set up by a 21-yard punt return by safety Jim Leonhard with a personal foul on Adams giving the Ravens possession at the Cleveland 35-yard line.
The Ravens finished with 151 rushing yards and three touchdown runs on 44 carries.
The Ravens won the time-of-possession battle by an edge of 37 minutes and 48 seconds to the Browns' 22 minutes and 12 seconds.
"I know coach Harbaugh said about 10 times this week, 'When the defense gets turnovers, we have to punch it in. We don't want field goals. We want touchdowns,'" McClain said. "We've been setting our goals. We're just sending shout-outs to the league that we have a strong team and we're going to finish."
Meanwhile, the Browns dropped to 0-3. The last time a team began the season 0-3 and earned a playoff berth was the 1998 Buffalo Bills.
Cleveland has scored just two touchdowns all season. Cornerback Samari Rolle put the game away with his first interception of the season on the Browns' final possession.
"I don't know whether we're trying to live on the success we had last year, but it's not working," Browns coach Romeo Crennel said. "So we're going to have to do a lot better, or this thing is really going to get away from us. In the second half, we played poor football. We got penalties and gave them scores on turnovers."
"This hurts big-time," Lewis said. "0-3 is pathetic."
Last year, the Ravens were swept by the Browns in going 5-11 under former coach Brian Billick, including a controversial 33-30 overtime loss punctuated by Dawson's 51-yard field goal at the end of regulation that ricocheted off the crossbar, off the support post and back onto the field.
"We knew we needed to defend our home turf, we let them come in here and steal a win from us last year, so that was definitely in the back of our minds," Suggs said. "It wasn't about them this game. It was definitely more about us."
The Ravens were forced to take last week off as their game against the Houston Texans was postponed until Nov. 9 due to Hurricane Ike, but didn't display many signs of rust.
Now, the undefeated Ravens have positioned themselves for a nationally-televised, first-place competition with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 29 at Heinz Field.
That will mark the Ravens' first road game of the season.
"You want to send a message within your division, especially when you're playing at home," Suggs said. "Now, we get another chance to go do it against Pittsburgh on Monday night."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.
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