BALTIMORE -- After the Baltimore Ravens recorded a season-high five sacks, their pass rushers weren't greeted with a pat on the back. Instead, they received a dose of tough love.
On Saturday night, linebackers coach Ted Monachino delivered a speech about how great things are expected of this defense and explained the bar has been raised. He asked the players individually if they were just getting started.
"He challenged us," pass rusher Pernell McPhee said. "He told us, 'We're not playing like a defense that we should be playing for the talent that we have.'"
Consider the challenge accepted. In the Ravens' 29-7 win -- one that moved them into first place in the AFC North for the first time this season -- their pass rush was the most consistent part of the team's game and negated the penalties on offense, Joe Flacco's turnovers and an ill-timed mistake on special teams. As a result, the Ravens' defense was within seven minutes of shutting out the NFL's No. 5 scoring team and held the Atlanta Falcons offense to a season-low 254 total yards (156 below their average).
The relentlessness of the Ravens' defense was set by their pass rush, which recorded five sacks for a second straight week and hit Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan a total of nine times. The Falcons tried to slow the onslaught with several screen passes and even chipped in a running back to help the pass protection, but there were no solutions for McPhee, Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs.
"There were times when we really didn't have a chance to get the play off, and that's very difficult for a quarterback," Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
This is how much of an impact the pass rush made:
In the first quarter, McPhee sacked Ryan on the Falcons' first trip into the red zone and forced a fumble. The key here was misdirection as McPhee did a stunt inside with blitzing linebacker C.J. Mosley (who drew the attention of the Falcons' center), creating a clear path up the middle.
In the second quarter, Dumervil sacked Ryan immediately after Jacoby Jones muffed a punt and gave the ball to the Falcons at the Ravens' 37-yard line. Dumervil got such a great jump off the edge that he barely got touched, beating both the right tackle and running back.
In the fourth quarter, Suggs recorded a safety to end any momentum that the Falcons had built after they scored on the previous drive. This was set up by defensive tackle Haloti Ngata getting double teamed by the left guard and tackle, allowing Suggs to loop from the edge to the middle and getting an open lane to Ryan.
"It just shows what we can do," Suggs said. "It's on film now and everybody is seeing how our defense can control games. That's going to be the standard from now on."
The Ravens got pressure on quarterbacks earlier this season but they weren't getting sacks. According to defensive coordinator Dean Pees, quarterbacks were getting rid of the ball in 2.1 seconds in the first five games. Over the past two weeks, the Ravens have totaled 10 sacks because quarterbacks have held the ball a half second longer.
What's been the difference? It has as much to do with the secondary as the pass-rushers up front. The defensive backs have played tighter coverage, and the Ravens are causing quarterbacks to think more with different looks. There was a point during Sunday's game in which Jimmy Smith, the Ravens' best cornerback, was lined up at safety.
"I rolled out a few [coverages]," Pees said. "Trust me, I stay up late nights."
Ryan was under duress on a season-high 32 percent of his dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The effectiveness of the Ravens' defense is based on their pass-rushers getting in the face of Ryan.
When the Ravens got pressure on him, Ryan was 4 of 10 for 33 yards. When they didn't, he was 25 of 34 for 194 yards and a touchdown.
"Those dudes are our best friends," Jimmy Smith said of the pass rush. "They get in there and they disrupt things. They cause havoc. They make quarterbacks panic and throw the ball in the air."
The Ravens' defensive backs were angry at themselves for dropping a few interceptions Sunday, but there was something that irked Pees even more. A 4-yard touchdown pass to Roddy White ended the hopes of the Ravens' first shutout since November 2009.
Asked how disappointed he was about that, Pees threw out a "no comment" and headed out of the locker room.
Consider that the next challenge for this defense.