In the fourth week of the season, against the bumbling Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens found an identity that can take them as far as they want to go.
Integrating smashmouth football into a diversified offensive profile yesterday, the Ravens drubbed the Bengals, 37-0, at PSINet Stadium before an announced crowd of 68,481.The Ravens gave Cincinnati a pound of Jamal Lewis, a pinch of Priest Holmes and a ton of defense in a game that essentially was over three plays into the second quarter.
Akili Smith on a punishing hit by defensive end Rob Burnett, they were strictly in the survival mode, trailing 17-0. And there was no surviving a defense that established single-game team records for fewest rushing yards (4), passing yards (90), total yards (94) and first downs (7) allowed.
At 3-1, the Ravens not only regained the AFC Central Division lead - pending tonight's game between Jacksonville and Indianapolis - they discovered an offense that can complement their ravenous defense.
"Team is what's going to win ballgames," tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "People keep saying we've got great defense. Well, Tampa has proved you can't win Super Bowls, can't win championships, by playing great defense and not having an offense.
"We're going to take the approach [that] we're going to carry the stick as far as our side of the ball, and let the defense do their thing."
Yesterday, it was Jamal Lewis' stick. The fifth pick of this year's draft debuted as the featured running back with his first NFL touchdown and his first 100-yard game. The touchdown - an 11-yard rumble through three Bengals on the first play of the second quarter - was pure power. The 116-yard game, on 25 carries, was sheer delight for the offensive line.
"You've got to understand what happens when you run the ball," said left guard Edwin Mulitalo. "It just shows dominance. It wears down the defense, we get more confident, and everything works out the way you want."
The Ravens ran the Bengals (0-3) into the ground. When it wasn't Lewis, it was Holmes, who gave up his lead job this week, but not his big plays. Holmes dashed for 51 yards on eight carries, and caught four passes for 48 more, barely missing a 100-yard game of his own.
Altogether, the Ravens rushed for 176 yards, averaging 4.6 a carry, which balanced out quarterback Tony Banks' 196-yard, two-touchdown passing game.
"What was really nice was the one-two punch of Priest and Jamal," coach Brian Billick said. "Priest is being just an ultimate professional coming in, doing what he can, helping in the locker room before the game. He's just coaching like a son of a gun with Jamal, taking the little points of what he needs to do."
Holmes spent most of the week, and a large part of the game, talking Lewis through the job. The team's running backs meet at Lewis' home on Thursday nights - the rookie picks up the dinner tab - to share information.
"We watch film on Thursday nights and all week he tells me to be patient," Lewis said, "because he knows I have a tendency to just get worked up and want to hit it fast."
Lewis' impact on offense wasn't only in the extra yards he punched out. It was also seen in ball control.
"He gives us time of possession," said Sharpe, whose 1-yard touchdown catch opened a 24-0 lead in the second quarter. "He keeps our offense on the field. He and Priest have contrasting running styles. He's more of a banger, and still can take it the distance. Priest is more of a slasher who makes people miss. One thing they do have in common - they're both very effective."
The running game helped the Ravens amass a whopping 17-minute edge in time of possession, and the passing game benefited. The Ravens converted 11 of their first 13 third downs. Banks, who had struggled on third downs, threw 11 of his 20 completions on third down.
"I threw good balls and we caught 'em," Banks said. "Pretty simple."
Banks threw an 8-yard scoring pass to rookie flanker Travis Taylor on third down for a 10-0, first-quarter lead. It came on the same play that Taylor dropped earlier in the quarter, a quick slant.
When Billick had backup quarterback Chris Redman still throwing to Taylor late in the fourth quarter, it heated up a rivalry that has seen the Ravens beat the Bengals five straight times.
Taylor caught two passes in a 40-yard drive that started with 5:27 left in the game. When officials ruled Taylor down outside the goal line on the second one, with two minutes left, Billick challenged the call and lost. The Ravens settled for a 19-yard Matt Stover field goal.
The upshot was that Bengals coach Bruce Coslet left the field abruptly at game's end without the traditional post-game handshake with Billick.
While Coslet issued only a terse post-game comment and took no questions, it was left to his players to address the ill will.
"That's something that is disappointing to see and when you're on the other side of it, it really makes you mad," said former Ravens quarterback Scott Mitchell, who coughed up three turnovers after replacing Smith. "I'm sure it's something that we won't forget."
Linebacker Steve Foley was even more agitated.
"Division opponents, some kind of rivalry, I don't know," he said. "That's how it is for a lot of teams. Some of them try to pay you some respect; others don't.
"Next time we play these [players], we need to hit them in their mouth like they did us, so at the end of the game they're not wanting to shake our hands. That's how it's going to be."
Ravens 37, Bengals 0