Ravens mastering turnover game

OWINGS MILLS -- Call the Baltimore Ravens selfish. Call them greedy. Call them victorious more often than not. Just ask the Tennessee Titans and the Miami Dolphins, the Ravens' latest playoff victims.

Heading into Sunday's AFC title game against the Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4) at Heinz Field, the Ravens (13-5) are operating under a simple, elemental approach. They believe the football always belongs to them regardless of whether they're on offense or defense.

Nobody is mastering the turnover game nowadays quite like Baltimore, whose defense has forced eight turnovers in two playoff games with one lost fumble offensively for a plus-seven turnover in the postseason. Star free safety Ed Reed has intercepted 10 passes in the past eight games, scoring four touchdowns this season.

"It's kind of how you played in childhood football," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "If you took the ball away, go score. Do anything you can do to score.

"We work on that during practice. We work on pitching the ball. We work on setting the wall for each other and things like that. We don't take that lightly. We like getting into the end zone."

The Ravens led the NFL during the regular season with 34 takeaways, including a league-high 26 interceptions to finish with a plus-13 turnover differential that ranks third overall.

Baltimore is 10-2 this season when it forces multiple turnovers.

"The turnover battle is big," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "That's been probably the catalyst for us in the first two games. Whether that's going to be able to be the catalyst for us in this game, we don't know. But that's been a big part of it."

Against the Dolphins in the wild-card round, the Ravens snatched four interceptions from usually careful quarterback Chad Pennington and generated a total of five turnovers.

Against the Titans, the defense yielded 391 yards of total offense. However, the Ravens managed to grab three turnovers inside the 20-yard line in a 13-10 AFC divisional playoff win.

No game-changing turnover has stood out more than Reed's zigzagging 64-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Dolphins where he caught the football over his shoulders like Willie Mays.

"I think it starts with the other guy I call Superman: Ed Reed," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "He's been such a ball-hawk the whole season and then it trickles down to everybody else. He sees one thing and, all of a sudden, you see Superman come flying back, catching the ball and running it to the other end."

Reed has registered five career interceptions in three playoff games.

The Ravens are 27-8 when he intercepts a pass and 8-0 when he intercepts two passes or more.

And he's a constant threat to score when he gets the football in his hands.

"I guess it's just a little offensive mentality that's in me," said Reed, a former high school quarterback from St. Rose, La. "The confidence is definitely there to score with it, and we're definitely trying to score with it."

Hence, the Steelers plan to be extremely careful against Reed. The former NFL Defensive Player of the Year led the NFL during the regular season with nine interceptions. Reed's second interception of Pennington was particularly impressive because he appeared to be out of position on the play before swooping in for the pick.

"He's in Cover 2, safety to the right side, and he picks off an under route to the left," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He is always all over the field. He's a ball-hawk."

Conversely, Roethlisberger has done a good job of avoiding Reed and being cautious with the football in two wins against Baltimore this year. He was intercepted just once in those two victories.

"Ben is a quarterback who is very cautious with what he does out there," Reed said. "He's always aware of the situation, where guys are at. So it's going to be a challenge. It always is against these guys."

Meanwhile, the Ravens are so hard-hitting that they often make opponents cough up the football.

Against the Titans last week, linebacker Jarret Johnson punched the football out of running back LenDale White's grasp from behind. In the fourth quarter, strong safety Jim Leonhard and linebacker Bart Scott crushed tight end Alge Crumpler in the red zone.

"Most of the times when we do give up a play, one thing we take pride in is just getting the hit after the ball is thrown," Lewis said. "When the ball is thrown or handed off, everybody finds the football. There's where I believe a lot of the turnovers are coming from. Everybody is always around the ball, everybody is always going for it, stripping for it."

It's not an accident that the Ravens are so adept at forcing turnovers. The Ravens spend a lot of time practicing stripping the football or anticipating offense's intentions to try to set up interceptions.

"We have a lot of drills, all of those drills are training camp drills and some of them carry over through the season," Harbaugh said. "Takeaways and giveaways are an emphasis in every practice. Our guys know how important that is."

Added offensive coordinator Cam Cameron: "We don't try to have any levels that we teach and coach ball security. It's always going to be our No. 1 priority."

Meanwhile, quarterback Joe Flacco hasn't committed a turnover in the playoffs in becoming the first rookie to win two playoff games in NFL history. Over the last 13 games, including the playoffs, Flacco has thrown just five interceptions.

"I don't know what necessarily makes him special at doing that, that's just who he is," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "I hear what they say about him and that he has a calm demeanor. I think that works to his favor.

"When we played these guys the first time this year, we were up on them and he took them down the field and sent that game into overtime. I think at that point I realized that we were going to have to deal with this guy for a long time."

Just like the defense, Flacco operates on one big premise. The football belongs to him, and he isn't inclined to share it with anyone not wearing purple and black.

"'Joe Cool' has just been the way he's been," Mason said. "Taking care of the ball and making the passes he needs to make to move us down the field."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

Ravens Insider Top Stories