Flanker Hines Ward found himself launched into the air by cornerback Chris McAlister, his arms flailing aimlessly for balance. And Antwaan Randle El met with a similar fate when safety Ed Reed delivered a punishing blow to his midsection.
Between McAlister, Reed and All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis, the Ravens intercepted Maddox three times as he finished with 108 yards and a horrid 22.4 quarterback rating. Although there were no playoff implications contained within AFC North champion Ravens' 13-10 overtime victory over the Steelers on Sunday night at M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore is banking on this being a litmus test for a postseason winning formula.
Heading into Saturday's AFC wild-card playoff against the Tennessee Titans (12-4), Baltimore (10-6) plans on relying heavily on its two constants. Namely, a top-ranked running game headlined by NFL rushing champion Jamal Lewis who posted the second-most prolific season by a runner in league history with 2,066 yards. Plus, the Ravens feature the third-ranked defense overall led by Lewis and three other Pro Bowl selections in McAlister, Reed and outside linebacker Peter Boulware.
Lacking a top-flight passing game again, the Ravens' equation counts on a smash-mouth approach on offense and a swift, striking defense. "The last time we had that formula we went to the Super Bowl," said Ray Lewis, who posted a career-high 225 tackles along with six interceptions. "With Jamal running like that and our defense playing the way it is, I've said it all along: We're going to be hard to beat. "It's not about boasting. It's not about bragging. We're just a physical football team. We love to play old-school football."
Although this youthful edition doesn't exactly mirror the image of the Ravens' Super Bowl squad from three years ago, it does carry a few similar characteristics. Those veteran-laden 2000 Ravens set an NFL record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game regular season with 165 points surrendered. Plus, the running game was ranked fifth in the league as Lewis had 1,364 yards during his rookie campaign. Those Ravens defeated the Titans 24-10 in an AFC divisional playoff, allowing only 23 points in the entire postseason before toppling the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.
These Ravens have allowed only 10 points in the last eight quarters and an extra period. "We approach defense like we're on offense," safety Chad Williams said. "We don't sit back and wait for the offense to dictate the tempo and what's going to happen. "We're not just about reading and reacting. We attack people and force them to adjust to us."
Against the Steelers, Lewis rushed for 114 yards and a touchdown to finish 40 yards shy of surpassing Eric Dickerson's single-season NFL rushing mark. The defense allowed only nine first downs, sacked Maddox five times as Douglas garnered 2 1/2 sacks and Hartwell accounted for 1 1/2 more as Baltimore limited the Steelers to a 3-of-15 conversion rate (20 percent) in third-down situations.
About the most success Pittsburgh enjoyed was an 81-yard fake punt for a touchdown on punter Josh Miller's pass to Chris Hope. "It was an unbelievable, historic effort on the part of our defense, notwithstanding the 80-yard punt," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "I want to put that on the special teams. I wish I could, because our defense deserves not to have it on their record, both the score and the yardage."
Unlike the Titans, New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts and others who feature all-star quarterbacks in Steve McNair, Tom Brady, Trent Green and Peyton Manning, Baltimore's winning depends on a much different profile. "You look at the profile of teams and one I always look at is defense and the ability to run the ball real well," Billick said. "Obviously, that matchup has been pretty good for us. They always say, 'Follow the money, follow the quarterbacks.' Save our situation, there are five teams with Pro Bowl quarterbacks. "Every team has something that concerns them, either their run defense or their run offense, pass defense or pass offense."
Quarterback Anthony Wright is a former third-string passer who has been erratic of late after engineering a brief offensive breakthrough with 44-point outings in successive wins over Seattle and San Francisco. He had several errant throws in passing for 163 yards Sunday night with an interception and a 62.1 quarterback rating. For the season, Wright is 5-2 as a starter in relief of rookie quarterback Kyle Boller. He has passed for 1,199 yards, nine touchdowns, eight interceptions and a rating of 72.3.
The Ravens rank first in rushing and last in the league in passing, averaging 166.8 yards on the ground and only 141.3 yards through the air. Baltimore is the only team in the league that has more rushing yards (2,669) than passing yards (2,517). "Our profile is what it is," Billick said. "We are the youngest team in the league. I don't have a Pro Bowl quarterback. We have one hell of a defense. We are running the ball well. "And we are showing the ability to make big plays under the right circumstances."
Without the sizzle of a passing offense to give opponents pause, the Ravens can lean upon a bruising rushing attack led by Jamal Lewis and the heaviest offensive line in the NFL along with a defense that sports Pro Bowl selections in Reed, McAlister, Lewis and outside linebacker Peter Boulware. And the Ravens have Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Terrell Suggs, an outside linebacker who led all rookies with a dozen sacks.
Billick did express concern Monday about his team possibly experiencing emotional fatigue after going to overtime in a hard-fought game against Pittsburgh. Plus, the Ravens are 5-1 in the postseason, undefeated in two playoff games in Baltimore, 7-1 at home this season and the winner in five consecutive games against McNair's Titans. Whatever happens in the playoffs for Baltimore might not be artful or carry many style points, but the Ravens' physical approach is certain to leave a few scars on opponents. "That's the way we love to play," Ray Lewis said. "Hopefully, it will work."
Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.