It couldn't have started much better for the Ravens defense when Kyle Hamilton tipped a pass to himself and returned it for a touchdown on the second play of the game.
The Ravens jumped out to a 14-point lead Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, injecting M&T Bank Stadium with the feeling that yet another rout in front of the home crowd could be in the making.
The Browns had other ideas, rallying to beat the Ravens 33-31 and overcoming not only the first 14-point deficit, but another in the fourth quarter to win on a walk-off 40-yard field goal.
It was a very atypical day for the prideful Ravens' defense, which entered the game atop the NFL with just 13.8 points allowed per game, and one they struggled to wrap their minds around after the game.
"It's definitely just shocking [and] frustrating, but it's the NFL – you have to bring your best game forward every Sunday and we didn't do that today," defensive tackle Justin Madubuike said.
The Ravens have one of the best run defenses in the league and arguably the best inside linebacker duo in the league. The Browns were without their top three offensive tackles and running back Nick Chubb. Yet they still ran for 178 rushing yards against the Ravens – the most Baltimore has given up all season.
With the game on the line in the final minutes, Cleveland ran the ball into field goal range. Deshaun Watson got loose, as he did numerous times Sunday, for a 16-yard run. Then Jerome Ford, who piled up 107 rushing yards, got loose for another 12 yards, pushed forward by a mass of Browns blockers.
"It bothers you a lot," outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney said. "We take pride on not giving up a lot of rushing yards in the run game and today they moved the ball very well on us up front and in the secondary."
It wasn't just the rush defense that was the problem. Watson moved the chains too often with his legs or by extending plays and throwing. He ran eight times for 37 yards and the Browns were 8-of-16 on third down.
"A big part of the emphasis in the plan was to keep him in the pocket, retrace [and] tackle him coming back on the middle," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "When he took off – we call it the front door – that's when he ran, and we didn't want to let him get out of there, but he still did it. So, that's something that was disappointing."
The Ravens also gave up too many passing yards over the middle of the field, including a late backbreaker on the Browns' game-winning drive. Following an Odafe Oweh sack-strip, Cleveland was facing a second-and-19. The Ravens had a chance to deliver the knockout. Instead, Watson found wide receiver Amari Cooper open over the middle for a 17-yard gain and converted on the next play.
Harbaugh said the Ravens didn't play their split safety coverages very well.
"They were getting on our edges; we were getting outflanked to the flat a couple times, myself included," Hamilton said. "They were sitting in zones and catching the ball. Deshaun was delivering some good passes.
"It seemed like every time we had them up against the ropes, they just kept the drive going. That's tough on a defensive mind to get to third down, third-and-long, and come back and it's third down."
After a Madubuike sack in the fourth quarter, the Ravens held a 14-point lead and a 97% chance to win, per ESPN Analytics. A pick-six by Lamar Jackson midway through the fourth quarter, when a pass was tipped and returned for a 34-yard touchdown by Greg Newsome II, certainly didn't help.
But the Ravens still surrendered three long offensive drives to the Browns in the second half – 17 plays, 75 yards; six plays, 75 yards; 12 plays, 58 yards. That's not how the Ravens defense has operated this season, and it's below the expectation moving forward.
Now the Ravens head into a critical AFC North home game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday Night Football, and their defense will be itching for a better showing.
"It's all about responding now," cornerback Brandon Stephens said. "This one is over with. We'll learn from it. We know that wasn't our best performance, but it's still a long season, and we just have to go win next week."