The Ravens were without their starting quarterback. They were without their best tight end. And they were without a majority of their starting offensive line.
But yesterday against the hapless St. Louis Rams, the Ravens proved they still had something just as valuable - their swagger on defense.
After enduring hits all season about their status as an elite defense, the Ravens took out their frustrations on the winless Rams in a 22-3 victory at M&T Bank Stadium, taking away the ball six times and eventually taking out Rams quarterback Gus Frerotte.
The Ravens' team-record five interceptions set up the offense in Rams territory three times and led to nine points. Their one forced fumble occurred three plays after Kyle Boller threw an interception in the red zone and paved the way for another field goal. And their four sacks took a toll on Frerotte, leaving him curled up on the field and sending him to the sideline with a minute left in the game.
With their 100th win as a franchise, the Ravens improved to 4-2 and moved within a half game of the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers (4-1). It also elevated the Ravens back into the upper echelon of NFL defenses.
"The drive to be the No. 1 defense in the league is what always keeps us moving forward," said cornerback Chris McAlister, one of five Ravens to make an interception. "Our whole motto is: If we can get turnovers, we can put our team in a better position to win."
Four of the turnovers the Ravens forced put the offense at the Rams' 43, 13, 27 and 44-yard lines. The Ravens converted those turnovers into four field goals with an average drive of 17 yards.
The defense's biggest impact came in the second quarter after the Rams, trailing 6-0, returned a fumble by Boller to the Ravens' 16-yard line and were moved forward another 5 yards on a delay-of-game penalty.
A 2-yard gain by rookie running back Brian Leonard took St. Louis to the 9-yard line for its deepest penetration of the game, but Ravens nose tackle Kelly Gregg dropped Leonard for a 3-yard loss on the next play.
A false-start penalty pushed the Rams back farther before St. Louis' No. 3 receiver Marques Hagans, a converted quarterback, dropped Frerotte's best pass of the game in the end zone.
Kicker Jeff Wilkins hooked a 35-yard field-goal attempt wide left.
"That says, 'Hey, offense, let's go. These guys [on defense] have our back, and we have to hold our side of the bargain, too,'" said Boller, who is expected to start Sunday in Buffalo against the Bills in place of injured starter Steve McNair (back). "We have to take our hat off to the defense. They did an unbelievable job."
Without tight end Todd Heap - who left in the first quarter after aggravating a hamstring injury - and three injured starters on the offensive line (left tackle Jonathan Ogden, center Mike Flynn and right tackle Adam Terry), the Ravens' offense responded to that missed field-goal attempt with their longest drive of the game.
Boller completed all three passes on the series for 39 yards before the Rams committed a 27-yard, pass-interference penalty against receiver Mark Clayton. One play later, Willis McGahee followed pulling right guard Ben Grubbs and powered his way to a 6-yard touchdown run on the left side.
McGahee's first rushing touchdown as a Raven increased the lead to 13-0 with 4:13 left in the second quarter, ending the Ravens' streak of 18 drives without a touchdown.
It also provided a sense of relief for the Ravens' defense.
"We know from that point it's almost humanly impossible to deal with our defense," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "It's going to be a long time before you can come back on us like that."
The Ravens had taken some flak because the defense hadn't finished off teams in the past two home games, near fourth-quarter collapses against the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets.
Then on Sept. 30, the Ravens gave up 27 points on the road against the Cleveland Browns, raising eyebrows about the NFL's reigning No. 1 defense.
But the defense has tightened up its game against two banged-up offenses in the San Francisco 49ers and Rams, allowing just one touchdown and 10 points combined in the two games. The Rams have been depleted by injuries and played without their starting quarterback and running back and a large chunk of the offensive line and receiving corps.
Unlike previous quarterbacks the Ravens have faced, Frerotte didn't take three-step drops and get rid of the ball quickly. He held on to the ball and suffered the consequences.
If the Ravens weren't sacking him, they were forcing him to hurry the throw, which usually resulted in mistakes.
The first interception came on Frerotte's fourth pass, which went off the hands of Rams receiver Drew Bennett and into the arms of defensive lineman Dwan Edwards.
After that, "The probability is that it's going to be a good day [for the Ravens]," said Edwards, who made his first interception since high school.
The other interceptions were made by McAlister, Ed Reed, Corey Ivy and Derrick Martin. In addition, backup defensive lineman Justin Bannan forced a fumble that was recovered by Gregg, who also had a sack and finished with seven tackles.
The list of players who hit Frerotte would be longer.
Asked what hurt after the game, Frerotte said, "What hurts? You name it. On the last play I took a shot to the jaw - and I felt like I was punched."
After his last play, Frerotte lay on the ground, then left the game and watched the final 52 seconds from the sideline. With No. 1 quarterback Marc Bulger (ribs) already out, Hagans knelt with the ball twice to end the game.
"We knew they were wounded," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We smelled blood and we went after it."
Although Wilkins' 32-yard field goal in the third quarter ended the shutout, the Ravens knew their defense was clicking for the first time all season with sound coverage, an aggressive pass rush and timely play-calling.
"When you put them all together, you're going to come out on the positive," Ivy said. "We got our swagger back."