Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk (50) sacks Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) in the first quarter of Sunday's game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. The Packers' Nick Perry (53) and Datone Jones (95) are also in on the play. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media
BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Ravens are hardly an offensive juggernaut, ranked No. 14 in the NFL in points and No. 21 in yards coming into Sunday.
But if they don’t have quite the talent that last season won them the Super Bowl, they remain one of the NFL’s toughest teams, mentally and physically.
So for the Green Bay Packers to go into the Ravens’ M&T Bank Stadium and prevail 19-17 in a game in which defense carried the day, has to say something about a Packers defense that was missing its best player, injured outside linebacker Clay Matthews.
“We were down by (what is) by far one of the best players the Packers probably have ever seen,” defensive lineman Mike Daniels said of playing without Matthews, “and we still went toe-to-toe with the Super Bowl champs and came out the victor. It was convincing. We played very hard and we continue to just play physical, to show that grit that coach (Mike) McCarthy talked about all week.”
The win gets the Packers over the .500 mark for the first time in this young season, at 3-2, a half-game behind Chicago (4-2) and Detroit (4-2) for the early lead in the NFC North Division. Baltimore dropped to 3-3.
But victory came at a potentially high price for the Packers, who had to change their offense and slow tempo dramatically after losing receivers James Jones and Randall Cobb to knee injuries in the first half.
Coach Mike McCarthy didn’t give much indication how severe either injury is. But it has to be of major concern that Cobb, the Packers’ best playmaker in the passing game, rolled around in immediate pain after taking a hit on his knee late in the second quarter, then was carted to the locker room. He watched the second half on crutches from the Packers’ sideline.
“You’ll take (the win) anyway you can,” receiver Jordy Nelson said. “Unfortunately we lost some guys, but hopefully it’s not as bad as some of it looked, and he’ll be back quick.”
Being short-handed on offense for the second half turned the Packers into a ball-control, defensive-oriented team. McCarthy pulled out of his no-huddle offense, turned to running back Eddie Lacy (120 yards rushing on 23 carries), and watched his Matthews-less defense shut down Baltimore for three quarters before a major gaffe late in the fourth nearly cost the game.
The Ravens, like the Calvin Johnson-less Detroit Lions against the Packers last week, did next to nothing on offense for most of this game. Quarterback Joe Flacco finished with a passer rating of 112.6, but that hardly reflected his day.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers found a pass rush without Matthews, and saw his defense sack Flacco five drive-snuffing times. Inside linebacker A.J. Hawk had maybe the best game of his NFL career (three sacks); rookie Micah Hyde, playing the key nickel cornerback position, sacked Flacco once and was a sure tackler in the secondary; and outside linebacker Nick Perry had a strip sack that set up a Packers field goal at the end of the first half.
Though Flacco passed for 342 yards, the Ravens didn’t keep drives alive and converted only two of 14 third downs.
“You had a lot of individual performances that jumped out,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Obviously, I don’t watch that (defensive) film, (and) I’m sure there’ll be some of the guys in the trenches playing the unsung hero roles for us. (But) I thought Micah Hyde made some big open-field tackles. Obviously (cornerbacks) Sam (Shields) and Tramon (Williams) were doing a great job in coverage. When they can shut them down, a good offense like that, to 17 points, we should win those games.”
At least as important was a Packers run defense that at times has been dominant this season, at least when Capers can put his base personnel on the field. That means he has three 330-plus-pound defensive linemen: Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji and the rejuvenated Johnny Jolly.
The Ravens had problems running the ball coming into this game — they ranked No. 27 in the NFL in rushing yards per game — because of poor play on the offensive line and halfback Ray Rice’s hip injury. Against the Packers, and especially the base personnel that saw plenty of playing time, they had no chance.
Rice finished with only 34 yards on 14 carries (2.4-yard average), and the Ravens overall rushed for 47 yards on 22 carries (2.1-yard average). The Packers had an astounding 10 tackles for loss, including five by Hawk.
“That’s a lot of weight,” offensive lineman T.J. Lang said of Pickett, Raji and Jolly. “Those guys, not only are they big, they’re quick, and they do a lot of stunting where they’ll hit an inside gap. It’s just tough to move them, even with two guys. The last couple weeks we’ve played teams that have tried to force the run on us. Those guys have shut it down.”
The Packers’ dominance on their defensive line of scrimmage was most decisive on the first-half goal-line stand that went a long way toward winning this game. The Ravens, who were scoreless at that point, faced a first-and-goal from the Packers’ 4. They gave the ball to Rice twice up the middle and once on the outside, but he picked up only 3 yards total.
When McCarthy turned down a holding penalty after the third-down run, Ravens coach John Harbaugh tried to punch it in rather take the gimme field goal. But Raji pushed a couple yards into the backfield, Daniels fought off a block to hit running back Bernard Pierce, and Hyde came from behind to finish off the tackle at the 1.
“That goal-line stand meant everything to us,” Daniels said.
For all the defense did in the first 56 minutes, it nearly gave the game away in the end. With 2:40 left and the Ravens facing fourth-and-21 from his 19, Capers went into an umbrella coverage to prevent a big play. But safety Jerron McMillian, the deepest defender on the field, fell as receiver Tandon Doss ran down the middle seam, which left Doss wide open for an unthinkable 63-yard gain that set up a touchdown that cut the Packers’ lead to 19-17.
But the Packers killed the final 2 minutes when tight end Jermichael Finley (52-yard catch-and-run) and halfback Eddie Lacy (4-yard run) converted short third downs.
“If you’ve been to any of our camp practices, you shouldn’t be surprised to see how we played (defensively),” Daniels said. “The way we played against San Francisco and Cincinnati is overshadowed by the fact that those were losses. But we played very tough in those games as well. But this one I think a lot more people will pay attention for the fact that we won.”