Jamal Lewis may know it better than anyone. After seven seasons facing the Ravens defense every day in practice as Baltimore's running back, he had a pretty good idea. But after his third time going up against them in a regular season game, it was painfully clear.
A healthy Ravens defense is hard to top.
Keyed by a dominant secondary, the Ravens' defense gave Lewis, quarterback Derek Anderson, and the rest of the Pro Bowl performers on the Cleveland Browns offense fits en route to a 28-10 victory on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
"I know how they play on defense," Lewis said after the game. "When they start forcing turnovers and getting all the momentum, it's over."
The momentum shifted in the Ravens' favor almost immediately in the second half. On the third play of the half, Anderson spotted tight end Kellen Winslow cutting across the middle. His pass was on target, but Ray Lewis delivered a vicious blow that knocked the ball loose, leaving it tantalizingly spinning through the air.
As he ha
s done so many times before, cornerback Chris McAlister did not let it hang there long.
McAlister hauled in his 25th career interception, tying him with Lewis for second on the Ravens' all-time list. His 12-yard return brought the ball to the Browns' 12-yard line, and four plays later, Le'Ron McClain barreled into the end zone with his first career touchdown.
The momentum shift was only beginning. Next to the forefront would be safety Ed Reed.
On third down, Anderson targeted Steve Heiden in the middle of the field. Lurking deep in the backfield, Reed pounced, jumping the route and snaring the ball. He took off down the left sideline, high-stepping untouched into the end zone to make the score 21-10.
"Coach just told us to be patient and let the game come to us," Reed said afterwards. "Figure out what they're going and then strike. I just felt it; I knew that was it, so when they threw it, I was just like, 'Catch it.'"
For Reed, it was his 35th career interception, best all-time by a Raven. It was also his ninth career touchdown, the fourth off an interception return.
There was still 10:23 on the clock in the third quarter, but the veterans of the Ravens' defense had ensured that the game landed safely in their hands.
Fittingly, cornerback Samari Rolle's interception with just over a minute to go in the game officially snuffed out the Browns' hopes.
The secondary made the big plays in the second half that ensured victory for the Ravens, but they laid the groundwork by quietly shutting down the Browns' passing game in the first half.
"Our corners did a real good job on their wide receivers," head coach John Harbaugh said after the game. "Rex Ryan put together a great game plan, and Chuck Pagano did a really nice job of wiring the passing attack. He had our guys really prepared to understand the routes they run in different situations, and they stayed pretty true."
Although he did toss a 19-yard touchdown, Anderson connected on just nine of 20 attempts in the first half. Rolle and McAlister kept standout receiver Braylon Edwards in check, while Corey Ivy helped stifle Winslow.
Frustrating Anderson in the first half led to big plays in the second.
"You have no idea how easy [the secondary] made our jobs," defensive tackle Trevor Pryce explained. "The thing is that [Anderson] is not going to take many sacks. He took some today, but he was just throwing the ball up, or throwing it out of bounds, or throwing it in the dirt. He didn't want to take sacks, and when you don't want to take sacks, you throw interceptions. That's what he did today."
Safety Jim Leonhard, who also returned kicks during the game, stepped into the starting defense and charged in for one of five sacks that the defense was able to register. Leonhard filled in for Dawan Landry who, in a scary moment late in the first half, suffered a spinal cord concussion and had to be carted off the field and taken to Shock Trauma, where he will remain overnight.
Doctors said that Landry had neurologically recovered.
It may be a while before the Cleveland Browns recover, though. Now 0-3, the Browns are looking up at the 2-0 Ravens who pace the AFC North. With a healthy secondary locking down opponents and leaders like Ray Lewis, Trevor Pryce and Terrell Suggs taking care of the rest, the Ravens defense is once again proving tough to beat.