BALTIMORE — The intimidation tactics began immediately, a barrage of blitzes from the Baltimore Ravens’ ruthless defense that left New York Jets rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez paralyzed with fear as his knees were practically shaking.
It was as if Jets coach Rex Ryan, the swaggering former Ravens defensive boss, never left town as the Baltimore defense returned two interceptions for touchdowns and knocked down a two-point conversion pass to win the game.
Seconds after locking eyes with Ray Lewis across the line of scrimmage in the first quarter, Sanchez was granted a rough introduction from the All-Pro middle linebacker in brutal fashion during the Ravens’ 24-23 preseason victory over the Jets on Monday night before 70,355 at M&T Bank Stadium.
Lewis hammered Sanchez to the turf on a well-timed blitz, pressuring the GQ cover boy from USC and the fifth overall pick of the NFL draft into a crucial mistake.
Sanchez uncorked an errant safety valve pass intended for fullback Tony Richardson into danger as he threw it directly toward the hands of massive defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.
With a slight bunny hop to corral Sanchez’s first pass of the game, the 6-foot-4, 345-pounder intercepted the football and rumbled 25 yards into the end zone.
Apparently still in shock from his first miscue, Sanchez nearly threw another costly interception on his second pass of the game on the ensuing series when Lewis jumped a route and dropped what should have been a pick for another touchdown return.
"You don’t know what you’re playing against until you actually play against us," Lewis said. "You saw his eyes get big, and he was jumping around in the pocket. He threw another one to me, which I could’ve caught, but I didn’t want that one until the regular season.
“Bottom line, we gave a lot of looks and disguises and we confused him a little bit. I don’t care if you’ve coached for us or not, when you play against our defense, it’s hard. You put a young guy in there and you see our defense, it can be difficult. They really threw everything at us, draws and reverses. We just made some great play s.”
And Ngata simply carried out his assignment.
Afterward, he remained true to his usual humble form.
"I saw the quarterback looking at him, and then he threw the ball,” Ngata said. “I just jumped up and it hit my stomach. My stomach swallowed it, and I caught the ball."
Sanchez wound up completing just 3 of 8 passes for 43 yards for one score, an interception and a 55.7 quarterback rating.
“They’re obviously an athletic group, very fast,” Sanchez said. They’re flying around to the ball."
The intensity was cranked up from the beginning.
It didn’t feel like a meaningless preseason contest.
"Man, was that a preseason game?" Ravens coach John Harbaugh said afterward. "It was very intense. It was as hard-fought as a regular-season game."
However, Sanchez did display his arm and touch on a smooth 19-yard touchdown pass to speedy running back Leon Washington in the second quarter.
Washington burst past inside linebacker Jameel McClain on a wheel route, and McClain was incapable of matching his acceleration. There seemed to be some confusion on the coverage.
"The opportunity matched up," Washington said. "Anytime I get matched up with a linebacker, a safety or a defensive back, it’s to my advantage."
Meanwhile, the Ravens’ offense geared up after Ngata’s score as quarterback Joe Flacco lobbed a perfect spiral to hit veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason in stride for a 43-yard sideline completion that energized the crowd. It was a strike.
Three plays later, Flacco and running back Ray Rice executed a bit of sleight of hand.
Flacco faked a pass and handed it off to Rice behind his back.
Rice did the rest of the work, busting up the middle to find his way into the end zone on a three-yard touchdown to open up a 14-0 lead.
"We worked on it in practice, the little Statue of Liberty play, which I was representing for the New York area," said Rice, a former Rutgers star from New Rochelle, N.Y. "Fortunately, we were able to execute it and we got it done."
Another Baltimore drive stalled out when rookie kicker Graham Gano’s 46-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right.
With 21 seconds remaining in the first half McClain exacted his revenge for the touchdown pass.
With Jets quarterback Kellen Clemens trying to run a no-huddle offense, McClain read his eyes and realized that the football was headed in wide receiver Brad Smith’s direction. He intercepted Clemens and returned it 16 yards for a touchdown to stake the Ravens to a 21-7 halftime lead.
"It was good to see McClain come back and make the big play after giving up the touchdown and getting caught in a kickoff coverage," Harbaugh said. "Really, without our two big defensive plays, it was a very competitive first half.”
In the first quarter, the Ravens’ first-team defense that excelled under Ryan’s direction surrendered just 52 yards of total offense and one first down with no points allowed.
“We know the defense is tough," Ryan said. "I think that was the difference in the game. We’re not there yet, but we’re closing in on them.”
The Ravens’ run defense was repeatedly gashed in the first half as they allowed 80 yards on the ground on 19 carries, including 48 yards for Washington on eight carries with Thomas Jones gaining 32 yards on eight carries.
"We gave up too much ground in the first half, especially against the draws," new Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "We have to get off the blocks better. We love the big plays for the scores, but we gave up too much on their touchdown drive, particularly on third down.”
In the third quarter, cornerback Frank Walker was left in the dust as wide receiver David Clowney sprinted past him for a 28-yard touchdown pass from Clemens.
He was repeatedly targeted by the Jets’ offense, and he was nearly beaten for another touchdown pass to Smith on a drive capped by a 20-yard field goal to close the Ravens’ lead to four points.
Overall, Walker had an especially tough night.
“They didn’t do anything special, I just messed up,” Walker said. “I’m pretty sure my phone is full of text messages. It was a rough night. A blind man could see that it was a rough one for me.”
And backup quarterback Troy Smith struggled, too. First, he was intercepted by safety James Ihedigbo.
That was nullified, though, by a roughing the passer penalty and an illegal contact flag.
Then, Smith was intercepted officially by cornerback Marquice Cole to end the drive.
“We’ve got some things we need to iron out,” Smith said. “Definitely some things that I could have done better, made better decisions.”
Steve Hauschka hit a 42-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to make it 24-17.
Cornerback Evan Oglesby was flagged for pass interference in the final minute to give the Jets a 1st-and-goal situation.
Erik Ainge scored a touchdown on a quarterback sneak up the middle to bring the Jets to within one point.
Rookie cornerback Lardarius Webb knocked down Ainge’s pass meant for Marcus Henry on a two-point conversion try with 22 seconds remaining as linebacker Prescott Burgess disrupted the timing by pressuring Ainge.
“It was a great feeling, the best feeling I’ve ever felt,” Webb said. “It happened at the perfect time. I had fumbled the ball in the third quarter, and I was feeling down. I was trying to make a play throughout the game, and that play came at the perfect time.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.