REJUVENATED RUN GAME, SIX SACKS, FOUR FGS KEY WIN
It seems strange to say that the Baltimore Ravens haven't been physical enough this year, especially during a season when they are defending a championship.
But the team's middling 2-2 start was partially because it was getting away from what has made it great. And when it returned to the kind of running game and defensive play that have earned it a leaguewide nasty reputation, good things happened.
The Ravens' bounce-back ability after a loss was in full flower at SunLife Stadium north of Miami Oct. 6 as they registered a 26-23 win against the host Dolphins to record their 21st win out of 28 games after a loss under head coach John Harbaugh.
With its first road win of the year and fourth regular-season victory against Miami during the teams' last five meetings, Baltimore is now 3-2 in 2013 and shares first place in the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns.
The physical game was necessary, considering the Ravens had a season-low three wide receivers active because of injuries to Marlon Brown (hamstring) and Jacoby Jones (knee).
But quarterback Joe Flacco (19-for-32, 269 yards, interception, two sacks, 73.6 rating), in his usual matter-of-fact manner, seemed nonplussed after the win.
"Every single game in the NFL is tough, and every single game is important," Flacco said. "To get down here and respond the way we did against a good football team is going to be big for us down the road."
But head coach John Harbaugh was facetiously worried that the bruising contest might have caused more injuries than just guard Kelechi Osemele's pregame back spasms.
"Is everybody OK? Anybody hurt themselves?" Harbaugh said to gales of laughter.
The postgame mood may have been light, but the victory didn't come easily, even against a Miami squad coming off a Sept. 30 game and playing in front of a less-than-full stadium packed with Ravens fans, which is usually the case when the Ravens play in south Florida.
"To our fans, I could not believe it," Harbaugh said. "Thank you, thank you. It sounded like it was half the stadium."
After the Ravens scored 17 unanswered points during the second half, Miami (3-2) rallied for 10 of its own in a 1:35 span to tie the game with eight minutes, three seconds left during the game. Dolphins safety Reshad Jones capped the rally with a 25-yard interception return touchdown, caused when rookie defensive end Dion Jordan beat left tackle Bryant McKinnie and hit Flacco's arm as he threw the ball.
The smash-mouth Ravens, who gained 133 rushing yards on 40 carries, then drove 34 yards into Miami territory and got a 44-yard field goal from Justin Tucker with 1:42 left on a possession that forced the Dolphins to burn their remaining timeouts and get into a desperate situation.
It was the second four-field-goal game of Tucker's career, the other coming in December 2012 against the New York Giants.
Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (21-for-40, 307 yards, touchdown, six sacks, 86.1 rating) did find Brandon Gibson (74 yards, four catches) at the Ravens' 34 on a desperation fourth-and-10 play with about a minute to go. But the Ravens' sixth sack of the day, by Elvis Dumervil, forced a 57-yard field goal try, which went wide left, with 33 seconds to go.
The winning points came after Flacco's 16th career game-winning drive, his first of the season. Flacco dropped back 34 times during the games, and the Ravens ran the ball 40 times and held the ball for more than 36 minutes.
Defensively, Miami found itself playing the role of a team having trouble running the ball, attempting 11 rushes out of 57 plays; Lamar Miller gained 15 yards on seven carries to lead the team.
And when the Dolphins tried to pass, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs' three fourth-quarter sacks led a ferocious attack against an offensive line that has had trouble protecting Tannehill all season.
The Ravens now have 19 sacks, the most they have ever had through five games. The previous high (18) was the precursor to a team-record 60-sack season in 2006.
"This is a very tough Miami Dolphins team," Suggs said. "I wouldn't be surprised if we see them again [during the poststeason]. …
"But we stayed together. Through all the adversity, we stayed together."
GETTING PHYSICAL, GETTING THE LEAD
For all the problems the Ravens have had running the ball, it was Flacco's legs that got the Ravens going on a six-play, 80-yard drive after halftime, when they trailed, 13-6.
Flacco's 14-yard run on third-and-5 got the visitors a first down near midfield. A play-action fake and deep ball to Deonte Thompson drew a pass-interference call on ex-Maryland corner Nolan Carroll, setting up the Ravens at the Miami 19.
Even though Flacco had a dearth of targets, he sent reliable wide receiver Torrey Smith on a slant-corner route to the end zone, where ex-Atlanta corner Brent Grimes manhandled him for a second straight penalty; the infractions totaled 55 yards.
With the ball at the 2, Ray Rice (74 yards, 27 rushes, two touchdowns; 28 yards, six catches) powered in behind fullback Vonta Leach for the game-tying touchdown. The Ravens are now 19-2 when Rice runs the ball 20 or more times.
After that touchdown, the Ravens' physical nature then began to show in spades.
Rice bulled between the tackles to convert a third-and-1 before tight end Ed Dickson's (51 yards, two catches) straight-arm block helped him get a first down near midfield. The much-maligned offensive line then gave Flacco time to find Tandon Doss (58 yards, three catches) for 40 yards down the right sideline to the Miami 13.
But all the Ravens could muster was a 25-yard Tucker field goal. It did give them the lead back, 16-13, with 4:18 left during the third, and the drive that put them there consisted of five runs and five passes, the kind of second-half scenario that was sorely missing Sept. 29 in Buffalo.
In fact, it was an imbalance that was being transferred onto the Dolphins, who passed the ball on 30 of their first 40 plays. It got so bad for Miami that a late-third-quarter third-and-2 play ended up being a passing down; Brian Hartline dropped the ball to force a punt.
The ball was downed at the Ravens' 6, but the visitors then set out on perhaps their best-looking drive in recent weeks, a season-high 94-yard, 11-play gem. Bernard Pierce got through a hole right tackle Michael Oher made and gained 28 yards, the longest rush allowed by Miami all season.
Three plays later, Smith (121 yards, six catches) caught a 22-yard bullet for a first down in Dolphins territory before hauling in a 13-yarder in the right seam at the 32-yard line as the third quarter ended, a period during which the Ravens established control with 11 minutes' worth of possession and ended up with 17 unanswered points as the final quarter began.
Thompson gathered in a slant at the 3 before Rice completed the drive with an untouched 3-yard touchdown run, his 42nd-career score. That puts him in second place on the team's all-time list, passing Todd Heap, and brings him within five of Jamal Lewis' team record.
The touchdown gave the Ravens a 23-13 lead, and the drive that produced it was the epitome of a day when Miami could not play ball control and establish tempo as well as the Ravens. It's a problem the Dolphins have had all season, a dilemma Baltimore knows well.
DEFENSE, RUN GAME KEEP IT CLOSE
Lost in all the talk about the Ravens' unproductive running game was the fact that Miami averaged 17 rushing yards per game more than Baltimore through four weeks. That came into play once the game began, as Miami gained no rushing first downs and 7 yards on eight first-half carries.
The Dolphins targeted ex-Pittsburgh receiver Mike Wallace for 9 yards on the game's first play; Wallace has averaged four receptions per game during his career against the Ravens, and he was a priority, what with the underperforming Corey Graham covering him most of the day.
But two Miller runs -- sandwiched around an early timeout -- did not gain the yard the Dolphins needed, as a Ravens run defense that Buffalo gashed for 203 yards Sept. 29 was more stout. Haloti Ngata's third-down tackle forced an early three-and-out.
For his part, Rice was handed the ball immediately when the Ravens' offense took the field, but it was another reliable ball handler that came through on third down when Smith took a short Flacco pass and ran 41 yards to the Dolphins' 27-yard line.
With the Ravens having only three healthy receivers, it was up to rookie fourth-round fullback Kyle Juszczyk to haul in a third-and-7 pass. He was too well covered; the incompletion forced the Ravens to settle for Tucker's 42-yard field goal.
Despite the missed opportunity, the kick served as the Ravens' first opening-period points since they got seven at Denver. It was also the team's first opening-drive points of 2013.
The opportunistic Ravens got the ball right back when Tannehill -- trying to avoid being sacked any more than the league-high 18 times he had already been taken down in September -- tried to find tight end Charles Clay along the sideline. Clay had beaten Graham, but a leaping James Ihedigbo intercepted the pass at the Dolphins' 45.
A mandatory replay review on the turnover showed that Ihedigbo's hand had landed out of bounds before he could get a second foot down inbounds.
But Ihedigbo had sent a defensive message; he blitzed from the corner to take Miller down on the next play, and Courtney Upshaw got his first sack of the year when he looped around Daryl Smith and came up the middle to get Tannehill.
The Ravens persisted with the run; Rice got his fifth carry of the game -- matching his Week Four total -- when the Ravens got the ball back, setting up a third-and-2 on the Baltimore 44. But a Pierce sweep came up a bit short, and Sam Koch's 49-yard gross average, the league's third best, took a hit when he shanked a 25-yarder out of bounds. Later during the half, Koch uncorked a 26-yarder.
Miami punter Brandon Fields, the league net-average leader in September, then boomed a 53-yarder to the Baltimore 15. Pierce still had trouble getting a push, but Rice fared no better when Paul Soliai punched the ball loose and ex-Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe -- who later had to leave the game with a shoulder injury -- fell on it at the Ravens' 29.
But after two unsuccessful runs, Wallace dropped a third-and-4 pass inside the Ravens' 5, and the league's best red-zone offense had to settle for Caleb Sturgis' 37-yard game-tying field goal.
IT'S RICE VS. WALLACE, THEN HARTLINE APPEARS
Even though Rice struggled to find consistent holes in the early going against Miami's 10th-ranked run defense, the Ravens established him to set up play-action passes. In fact, the team ran the ball 11 times and passed it 13 during the opening 15 minutes.
That kind of balance paid off as the second quarter began.
Dickson, he of the six dropped passes, made a fingertip catch at the Ravens' 45-yard line and ran to the Dolphins' 29 to complete a 42-yard play. Flacco took another deep shot into the end zone, but Torrey Smith was called for offensive pass interference.
Despite the penalty, the Ravens took a 6-3 lead on Tucker's 50-yard field goal, which seemed to be still climbing as it passed through the uprights.
But just as the Ravens seemed determined to get Rice going, the Dolphins were doing the same with Wallace (105 yards, seven catches), who beat Matt Elam and Lardarius Webb for 49 yards to make a deep catch at the Ravens' 13.
Even with Webb covering him, Wallace made another catch by the sideline to set up third-and-3 at the 7. But Tannehill switched to Brandon Gibson as his preferred end-zone target, and Webb's breakup forced Sturgis' game-tying 25-yard field goal.
The Ravens' plans got temporarily sidetracked when Osemele, who has practiced all year despite fighting through some back issues, was removed in favor of backup center A.Q. Shipley, who hadn't earned extended time away from center since his freshman year at Penn State. That switch, plus a sack of Flacco, wiped out the next drive.
Pernell McPhee then recorded the Ravens' second sack of Tannehill to halt the Dolphins' ensuing possession and keep them unsuccessful in seven third-down conversion attempts. The Ravens' third-down defense was tied for sixth best in the NFL coming into the weekend.
Speaking of defense, Wallace had been targeted nine times during the first half because Webb and Jimmy Smith had done a nice job on Hartline, the team's leading wideout who re-signed with Miami for lucrative terms during the offseason.
Webb broke up the first pass to Hartline (60 yards, four catches), but on a second attempt, Hartline broke a tackle and raced down to the Ravens' 30 as the first-half clock wound down. Hartline then beat Graham for 21 yards to the sideline, setting up first-and-goal at the 9.
Tannehill then turned to Clay, whom he had not targeted since early during the game. The back-shoulder throw beat Smith to the end-zone pylon, giving the Dolphins a 13-6 halftime lead after a seven-play, 60-yard drive.
But, during a game between two teams coming off losses, it was the Ravens that ended up getting back to basics and getting back in the win column.