Ravens, Texans built to run, defend
Ray Rice will take the handoff from Joe Flacco today and bust into the line of scrimmage, eyes darting as he searches for holes in a stout Houston Texans' defense.
The Pro Bowl running back is the central figure in the Baltimore Ravens' offense, the straw that stirs their drink with his speed, vision and versatility.
It's a highly similar strategy for the Texans, a football team built around the gifts of multi-dimensional running back Arian Foster. Although Rice and Foster won't actually square off on the field during today's AFC divisional round playoff game between the Ravens (12-4) and the Texans (11-6) at M&T Bank Stadium, how they perform and how they're defended shapes up as the key element in this rematch.
Call it throwback football in today's high-octane NFL where the pass has become paramount, but the Ravens and Texans still believe in the skill of their running games and rely heavily on the will of two of the stingiest defenses in the league. "I think the league is ever-evolving, and the guys that weed themselves out are the guys that don't adapt fast enough," said Rice, who led the NFL with 2,068 total yards from scrimmage while rushing for a career-high 1,364 yards and setting a franchise record with 15 touchdowns. "And it's been a pass-friendly league. Let's just put it out there, there's been a lot of passing going on. "Me just doing my job this Sunday, whether it's rushing, receiving, I think will be good enough. And I won't do anything extra. My offensive line has been playing great, Joe has been playing great. If I just go out there and do my job on a consistent basis and not give them the ball, then I think my game will be fine."
The Texans have similar ambitions. Even though the Ravens rank second in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 92.6 yards per contest and stonewalled Foster in the first meeting, a 29-14 win where he gained only 49 yards on 15 carries, the AFC South champions aren't going to deviate from their approach.
Everything runs through Foster and the Texans' trademark zone-stretch play, which they used to expel the Cincinnati Bengals from the playoffs in the wild-card round as he rushed for 153 yards and two touchdowns.
A former undrafted free agent from Tennessee, Foster rushed for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns one season removed from being the NFL rushing champion with 1,610 yards and 16 touchdowns. Foster also caught 53 passes for 617 yards while Rice caught 76 passes for 704 yards and three touchdowns.
"Just a strong back, very special player," Texans offensive tackle Duane Brown said of Foster. "Once he puts his foot on the gas, he never lets up and if he finds any kind of weakness in a defense he exploits it. He does a great job of trusting us up front, trusting his reads, trusting where the team is going to be and he gets to the second level it's really hard to tackle him."
The Ravens only yielded 100-yard rushing games to the Jacksonville Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew, the Seattle Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch and the Cleveland Browns' Peyton Hillis.
Opposing runners scored only 10 touchdowns on the ground, averaging 3.5 yards per carry.
"That's just our thing: You've got to stop the run," Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We know they're going to come in and run the ball, so it's going to be a fight. That's how we would want it."
A trip to the AFC championship game awaits the winner where they'll take on the New England Patriots and Tom Brady, That would leave the Ravens just one more victory away returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since claiming the Vince Lombardi trophy following the 2000 season.
It could also provide a potentially sweet ending to middle linebacker Ray Lewis' stellar career if he should opt to retire after this season. "For me personally, it's very simple," Lewis said. "As the leader of this team, it's to try to get a lot of these young kids a Super Bowl. For me personally, if we go do what we are supposed to do, then I walk up out of here with two rings. To win a Super Bowl would be a very, very special thing, because it's a special group of men that you win a Super Bowl with.
"Every team is saying the same thing: that they have a special group of men, but we now we have a special group of men. have a very special group of men. That would be a heck of a way to really celebrate something like that with this group. The season is long, but you are talking about three more weeks to possibly get a chance to touch that confetti again."
In order to reach that point, though, the Ravens will have to accomplish their goals today. That means bottling up Foster, rattling rookie quarterback T.J. Yates and containing star wide receiver Andre Johnson, who didn't play in the first game due to a hamstring injury.
"The objective, first and foremost, is to stop the run," defensive end Cory Redding said. "You can't let him get going," Baltimore defensive end Cory Redding said. "And then No. 2, get guys on No. 80 (Johnson). Then No. 3, get after Yates, period. You have to stop the run, control the pass and get after the passer. That's the formula for winning every single week." The Texans have no intentions of changing their style, not at this point and not with a back like Foster.
The 6-foot-1, 229-pounder is hard to slow down. "We've got to see how the game goes, but I know that we need to stay committed to running the football," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "Hey, we're going to have to run the ball effectively to win this football game. We know that. We know it will be a difficult task, but we're preparing to go do it."
For Foster to take control of the game and eclipse the century rushing mark would be an unprecedented feat against the Ravens in the postseason.
"We know that they're going to run the ball," Lewis said. "We know they're very good at running the ball."
Regardless of who runs the ball against the Ravens, no one has had sustained success in the playoffs.
"I think they're physical, they're talented, they have multiple Hall of Famers on their defense," Foster said. "If they just lined up normal, they'd be one of the best defenses in the NFL. But they try to confuse you with their looks. So, they're great football players, they're smart football players and they're physical football players and they're talented football players so that's why people have such a tough time with this defense is they have all these traits combined."
Overshadowed by the presence of Rice and Foster, there's always the possibility that Flacco or Yates could make the difference in this one.
"You never know what's going to happen in a game," Johnson said. "Both teams like to run the ball. It can come down to either Arian or Ray Rice making a big run or somebody making a big catch. Sometimes, games come down to one play. And it comes down to who can make that play when it counts. You never know what can happen." As far as Flacco is concerned, getting credit for the Ravens' success will likely elude him no matter what.
And he doesn't mind that Rice is the pivotal offensive player.
"I don't care, I mean we've won a lot of games around here," said Flacco, playfully jousting with critics. "At the end of the day, do you see the criticism sometimes and think, ‘What the hell are they talking about?' Yeah, but who cares? "It all comes down to three games now, win this one, win the next one, win the Super Bowl. Then what are they going to say? That's what we've got to do, that's what I've got to do. I'm not thinking about anything else."
Ravens promote Josh Bynes, cut D.J. Jones
OWINGS MILLS -- With inside linebackers Jameel McClain and Brendon Ayanbadejo listed as questionable for today's AFC divisional round playoff game against the Houston Texans, the Baltimore Ravens promoted rookie linebacker Josh Bynes from the practice squad to the active roster.
The Ravens created a roster spot for Bynes on Saturday by cutting rookie offensive tackle D.J. Jones.
With a right quadriceps injury, Ayanbadejo is regarded as a bigger question mark than McClain. McClain has a sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee.
After going undrafted out of Auburn, Bynes signed with the Ravens in July and was released on Sept. 3 during the final major roster cutdown. The 6-foot-1, 240-pound former Southeastern Conference standout joined the Ravens' practice squad on Nov. 9.
He was active for one game this season against the San Francisco 49ers.
At Auburn, Bynes recorded 238 career tackles, seven interceptions, 19 pass deflections, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoverie
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