BALTIMORE — Barreling into the backfield untouched on a blitz, outside linebacker Jarret Johnson unloaded an entire month of frustration on the Baltimore Ravens’ first defensive snap.
With a devastating blindside hit on Denver Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton that left him gun-shy for the remainder of the afternoon, Johnson served notice that the Ravens were going to set an intimidating tone.
Between Johnson’s crowd-pleasing shot and free safety Ed Reed’s forced fumble that led to a score, the Ravens’ stifling defense returned to form during a bruising 30-7 victory over the previously unbeaten Broncos on Sunday to halt a three-game losing streak before 71,132 at M&T Bank Stadium.
Desperation overcame the undefeated as a more aggressive, physical team won the game.
“We came out and hit them in the mouth,” fullback Le’Ron McClain said. “They couldn’t say anything by the end of the game. We had all the respect by the end.”
The Ravens’ offense reinforced the defense’s stance of intensity by efficiently moving the football against the top scoring (11.1 points per game) and third-down defense (26.9 percent) in the league.
Quarterback Joe Flacco overcame a slow start to complete his final 14 passes to tie Elvis Grbac’s franchise record with 80 percent accuracy for the game, and running back Ray Rice generated 84 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.
The Ravens seized the momentum on the first play of the second half on rookie Lardarius Webb’s electrifying 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
By virtue of an emotional win over a Broncos team that had surprisingly emerged as one of the top teams in the NFL, the Ravens (4-3) are now only one game behind the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North.
“It’s obviously going to help us, it’s going to change the attitude ,” cornerback Domonique Foxworth said. “Around the locker room, it’s going to be more upbeat. It’s amazing how winning heals all wounds.”
The Broncos (6-1) entered the game as one of three unbeaten teams in the NFL with the second-ranked defense in the league, dangerous kick returner Eddie Royal, imposing wide receiver Brandon Marshall and a league-best 76-10 scoring margin in the second half.
Marshall was shut down, Orton received some rough treatment and Royal was smothered by the special teams one game removed from returning a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns.
“They were coming off their bye week where they were the best team in the NFL, and we were coming off a bye week with three disappointing losses,” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “We had that on our mind. We were just hungry, very angry and confident coming in.
“Everybody else was hitting the panic button, but we came out and reminded everyone of how good a team this is. We got off of that skid. Now, maybe we’ve got to get this thing to snowball.”
The Ravens wound up holding the Broncos to a season-low for points and yardage with just 200 yards surrendered.
"We needed that win," Johnson said. "To lose the way we’ve lost the last three games , I think we needed to have a big-time opponent and play big versus them.”
And the Ravens’ offense converted 11 of 18 third downs against a team that had allowed a stingy 26.9 third-down conversion percentage all season, including just two first downs in the second half before Sunday.
The Ravens seemed to win the majority of the physical encounters, stonewalling NFL sacks leader Elvis Dumervil as he was shut out with no sacks of Flacco.
“I’d say that we won more one-on-one battles,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Denver is just relentless in the pass rush, and I thought our offensive line did a tremendous job of winning one-on-one battles.
“Defensive line, outside linebackers won all the pass rush one-on-one battles and a lot of run-game one-on-one battles. It was probably the key to the game. .. It was really a three-phase victory from beginning to end.”
After building a 6-0 halftime lead, the Ravens outscored the Broncos 24-7 in the second half.
After spending two weeks contemplating a three-game losing streak by a grand total of 11 points, the Ravens were determined to reverse their trend of coming up short when it counted.
“We know we’re capable of doing this kind of thing,” said Flacco, who completed 20 of 25 passes for 175 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for a 109.2 quarterback rating. “We had a chance in the other games. We finished. That’s why we won.”
Added wide receiver Kelley Washington: “This was a big stress-reliever. It was a tough two weeks knowing that we could have won the games that we lost.”
Webb’s touchdown was pivotal.
He broke away from the Broncos’ shoddy kick coverage around the 30-yard line behind a kickout block from McClain, reversing field to his right before turning on the acceleration to sprint into the end zone for his first NFL score.
“All 10 guys got their body on someone,” Webb said. “I just saw a hole and ran. It was an important runback. It really set a tone for our entire team.”
The Broncos issued an immediate rebuttal, though.
They engineered a 10-play, 86-yard scoring drive capped by a one-yard touchdown run from rookie running back Knowshon Moreno.
The drive was provided a boost by a questionable 39-yard pass interference penalty on Foxworth, a silly offsides penalty on Reed on fourth-and-one and a pass interference penalty on middle linebacker Ray Lewis for a total of 44 yards.
However, that was the lone breakdown from the defense.
They bottled up the Broncos’ short passing game with crisp tackling on the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Marshall.
And the Ravens were much more aggressive in terms of the game plan from oft-criticized defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, the replacement for former defensive boss Rex Ryan.
“I think for all the heat that coach has been getting, he put together a pretty good package,” Suggs said. “I think coach Mattison did a good job of putting all of us in the right places and playing a good chess match.”
There was more pressure, more exotic blitzes and sounder tackling.
“I think we were more multiple on first and second downs,” Johnson said. “I thought it was very good.”
It all started on Johnson’s blistering shot that shook up Orton.
“To get a free run, a long run at a quarterback, it was a good shot for a defensive player,” Johnson said. “Ed’s big hit, it really sets your tempo and lets them know what kind of game it’s going to be.”
Following Moreno’s score, the Ravens drove 69 yards before Steve Hauschka booted his third field goal of the game.
Then, Flacco connected with Mason from 20 yards out in stride on a skinny post pattern for a 23-7 lead.
The Ravens used a no-huddle offense at times during the second half.
Rice capped the Ravens’ scoring with a seven-yard burst up the middle with two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Now, the Ravens head into a key AFC North rematch against the Bengals (5-2) next week in a road showdown that will have major division implications.
They’ll need to sustain their momentum to make this win a true, groundbreaking turning point in their up-and-down season.
“I thought we made some vast improvements,” Johnson said. “To play against an opponent of that caliber was huge. We’ve got to build off of it. You can’t just lay your jock on the field and expect to beat people.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.