BALTIMORE - The Bengals defense gave up virtually nothing in the last three games, especially when their backs were against the wall. Such was the case Sunday when they held the Ravens to 199 yards and one short-field touchdown in the 13-7 loss.
They had another red-zone stand in holding the Ravens to a field goal on three shots from the Bengals nine on their first series and with 1:42 left in the game lineman Robert Geathers stuffed 260-pound fullback Le'Ron McClain on second-and-one and WILL backer Keith Rivers stoned running back Ray Rice on the next play to prevent the Ravens from running out the clock and setting the stage for the near-miraculous Bengals comeback.
WILL backer Brandon Johnson helped blank Rice in the passing game, a huge feat since Rice leads the Ravens in receiving with 63 catches. But quarterback Joe Flacco only went to Rice once while the Bengals held him to 77 yards on 20 carries.
"Stopping Ray Rice; he's 40 percent of their offense," said Johnson of Sunday's key. "Always keep a set of eyes on him. We know Flacco goes to him when he's in trouble."
And Flacco was in trouble much of the day. If defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer didn't dial up a blitz, the front four delivered pressure. Rookie linemen Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins combined for two of the four sacks as Dunlap set the club's rookie sack record with 9.5. Right end Michael Johnson got one and safety Roy Williams got his first sack of the season on a blitz.
The pressure was huge because, slot cornerback Keiwan Ratliff said, it forced the Ravens to max protect and keep Rice in the backfield to block. Ratliff said he blitzed more than in any game he's played in his seven NFL seasons as the Bengals stopped Baltimore on nine of 11 third downs.
"That was fun," Ratliff said. "They were keeping guys in to block and he was trying to get it out quick. That's a sign the pressure was getting there."
COMING UP SHORT: The Bengals and quarterback Carson Palmer literally came up short Sunday in the 13-7 loss to the Ravens as they did all season long.
They failed on third-and-one four times Sunday to finish their season a woeful 28-for-58 on third-and-two or less. On Sunday, Palmer underthrew wide receiver Andre Caldwell for an interception on a third-and-two bomb, and he coughed up a huge fumble on a third-and-two scramble at the Ravens 29 on the first play after the two-minute warning.
Ironically, he got that elusive first down, but in getting it he dove and as he did the ball slipped out of his right hand.
"I did a bad job with ball security," he said.
It has been like that all year. Flashes of brilliance interspersed with brain locks or flubs. Against the elite Ravens third-down defense, the Bengals converted 41 percent (seven-of-17), but four of the failures were a yard or shorter on three runs and a pass.
Palmer sifted the Ravens on 32-of-45 passing for 305 yards and nicked the Ravens for only their 17th red-zone touchdown of the season on a perfect 11-yard pass to wide receiver Jerome Simpson. But at the end of the half, trailing, 6-0, with 20 seconds left from the 13, Palmer threw his fifth end-zone pick of the season when he tried to hit wide receiver Jordan Shipley over the middle at the 2. It was high and slightly behind him in traffic and Shipley tipped it in the air long enough for safety Ed Reed to track it down in the end zone.
"They max dropped (eight) and we had two guys out in the route," Palmer said. "I tried to squeeze it in there and it looked like he just wasn't quite ready yet. It looked like we had him, I thought it was going to be a tight window, a big hit. I'm just trying to squeeze one in right before half and I probably shouldn't have done it."
Last year, Palmer always made the big throw in the red zone late. His touchdown passes in the last 2:03 tied Cleveland and beat Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Kansas City. But not this year. On third down from the 2, Caldwell got knocked off a fade route and the pass went long. On fourth down with 10 seconds left, the Bengals sent three receivers right, and when Palmer couldn't get Shipley coming back inside, he had to scramble, and his late heave to running back Cedric Peerman in the flat at around the 2 was wild high. But he also said defensive end Paul Kruger "got a piece of me" as he threw it.
Palmer is going to take the heat this offseason, but the scheme will no doubt take as many shots. The riddle is going to be, "How did the Bengals go from winning the AFC North with a run-first mentality to Palmer throwing a franchise-record 586 passes?"
Certainly they found out right tackle Anthony Collins can play. The Bengals didn't give up sacks in the last three games and Collins started the last two, including Sunday's air show. On those 45 passes, Collins and left tackle Andrew Whitworth blanked outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson as the Ravens only got one hit on Palmer.
After getting clogged for 21 yards on nine carries in the first half, running back Cedric Benson got untracked a bit for 32 yards on 12 carries in the second half when "we began running more downhill. We ran it right at them," he said.
But Benson summed up the short-yardage problems best.
"That's something team this has to work on," he said. "It's one yard. It's easy."