Ravens Defense Is The Key To Their Success

Baltimore's offense was barely ordinary, but the Ravens' time-tested formula helped them advance to the AFC title game, writes Len Pasquarelli. Can the defense continue their dominating ways in Foxboro?

BALTIMORE -- For the most part, the numbers don't add up.

   The upstart Houston Texans, playing in their second postseason contest since entering the league as an expansion franchise in 2002, had more yards than the more battle-tested Baltimore Ravens (315-227), registered more first downs (16-11), more sacks (5-0), got a 132-yard performance from tailback Arian Foster, and generally outplayed their opponents most of the day here Sunday afternoon in the divisional-round matchup.

   So how did the Texans, who provided the second-seeded Ravens plenty of nervous moments, lose to the home club by a 20-13 score? Easy: They led in turnovers, 4-0, and allowed an uneven Baltimore offense to largely play with a short field, especially in the first half, when the Ravens jumped to a 17-3 edge, then held on for dear life.

   "It's the playoffs," said eight-time Pro Bowl free safety Ed Reed, who had one of three Baltimore interceptions, the pickoff coming on the Texans' penultimate drive, at the Ravens' four-yard line on a long pass intended for wide receiver Andre Johnson. "You win by whatever means necessary."

   On this day, the Ravens advanced to their second AFC championship game in four seasons, a date next Sunday at New England, by making just enough defensive plays to advance to within one victory of their first league title appearance since defeating the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. The "any means necessary" was to fall on enough Houston fumbles and step in front of enough errant T.J. Yates aerials to essentially overcome a fairly ordinary performance by an inert offense.

   In addition to Reed, the Ravens got two interceptions from cornerback Lardarius Webb, and a fumble recovery by nickel cornerback and first-round selection Jimmy Smith. The latter came early in the first quarter, when Houston return man Jacoby Jones first allowed a Sam Koch punt to hit the ground, decided late to scoop it up and try to run, and then had the ball dislodged by Cary Williams.

   The recovery by Smith, at the Houston two-yard line, led to a 1-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco to No. 3 tight end Kris Wilson, a score that negated an early field goal by the Texans.

   And, which more importantly, set a tone.

   "Our whole mentality is to take the ball away and score," Webb said. "And it you can't get it in the end zone yourself, give the offense a chance to do it."

   Sitting in front of his stall in a Houston locker room where the frustration was palpable, his head buried in his hands, Jones, who eked out just four yards on a half-dozen returns, had little to say. But his coach, Gary Kubiak, was anything but silent. Said Kubiak: "There's no excuse. He shouldn't even be around the ball once (it hits the ground). He just made a mistake. I don't know what to say. We basically gave them points."

   Seventeen of them, in fact.

   Both of the Baltimore touchdowns, and one of the two Billy Cundiff field goals, came after Houston turnovers. The Raven's score came on drives of just two, 30, 34, and 45 yards. Two of the four scoring possessions originated in Houston territory. On the day, the Ravens' offense had just two drives for more than 40 yards on 15 possessions. The unit, with Flacco throwing for only 176 yards, and with tailback Ray Rice bottled up (60 yards on 21 carries and four catches for only 20 yards), was far more opportunistic than it was productive.

   Notable, too, was that the Ravens weren't flagged for a single penalty.

   For much of their history, particularly in recent seasons, the Texans have been undone by turnovers. So it seemed only appropriate that in the first playoff game in franchise history, the tragic trend would hold.

   "We gave them the ball in great places to score, and they did," said Yates, who inherited the starting job after injuries to starter Matt Schaub and primary backup Matt Leinart. "We had some chances, but ..."

   But unlike the Ravens, the Houston defense -- which mostly won the battle at the line of scrimmage, harassed Flacco, and executed superb run-blitz calls, many of them in the second half -- couldn't manage a game-changing takeaway.

   Three times the Ravens fumbled, including on the kickoff after a Neil Rackers field goal staked the Texans to a 3-0 lead on the game's first possession, and all three times Houston failed to recover, despite being in position to do so. The Texans also failed to come up with two would-be interceptions that hit defenders in the hands.

   Otherwise, the defense played outstanding football, turning in a goal-line stand with backup linebacker Tim Dobbins stuffing Rice from the one-yard line in the third quarter, and getting 2.5 sacks each from a pair of rookie standouts, end J.J. Watt and linebacker Brooks Reed. The club's first-round draft choice last April, Watt had an exemplary performance, with a game-high 12 tackles (three for losses) in addition to the sacks and three hurries after also starring last week in the wild-card win over Cincinnati.

   Not only did the Texans corral Rice, they also thwarted Baltimore rookie deep threat wide receiver Torrey Smith, limiting him to one catch for nine yards. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who missed the final two regular-season games for the Ravens after knee cartilage surgery, provided some key catches, posting 73 yards on four grabs, but the offense managed more than two first downs on just one possession.

   "We did most of the things we wanted to do ... but just not enough," lamented inside linebacker Brian Cushing. "Just not enough."

   The Ravens, who won a home playoff game first the first time since New Year's Eve 2000, and who have won 19 of their last 20 home games, have experienced some success in recent seasons at Gillette Stadium. In 2010, the Ravens took the Patriots to overtime before dropping a 23-20 decision. Baltimore ran roughshod over New England, with Rice bursting 83 yards for a stunning score on the opening play from scrimmage in a lopsided 33-14 victory in a 2009 wild card-round victory.

   The Pats had just 17 giveaways, fewest in the AFC and third-least in the league, in the regular season. Despite two turnovers in their dominating win over Denver on Saturday night in the division-round game, the Pats aren't likely to be as butter-fingered or generous as were the Texans.

   Several Baltimore players, and Harbaugh, acknowledged that the Ravens will have to play significantly better against the Patriots next week if they are to advance to Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5 at Indianapolis. Reed, who had been criticized locally for his poor tackling in recent weeks, but who came up with his eighth interception in 10 playoff games, seconded that emotion.

   "We have to play a lot better than today, man," Reed said. "A lot better."

Ravens News: Ravens Insider
Patriots News: Patriots Insider
Patriots Daily Newswire (stories from around the web)

FORUMS:  (join fellow fans to talk about the game)
Ravens Game Thead  -- Patriots Game Thread

Patriots Insider Top Stories