Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub let his guard down for a second, and the Ravens defense pounced.
Midway through the second quarter, the Texans led the Ravens, 6-3, but the score could have been more lopsided if not for the play of the Ravens defense in the red zone. Still, the Texans were in charge when Schaub dropped back in the pocket and casually tossed a short throw toward tight end Owen Daniels.
Maybe he perceived pressure that wasn’t actually there, the residual of a Terrell Suggs sack earlier in the game. Or maybe he didn’t see Daryl Smith lurking in the grass behind Daniels. But Schaub didn’t step into his throw and, in an instant, the Ravens seized control of the game when Smith returned the interception for a touchdown.
Toothless during an embarrassing season-opening loss to the Denver Broncos, the Ravens defense has found its fangs these past couple of weeks, leading the Ravens to two straight victories, including Sunday’s 30-9 win.
Since Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas ripped through the Ravens' defense on a screen play late in that 49-27 loss, the Ravens haven’t allowed a touchdown -- the first time in three years that they kept their opponents out of the end zone in consecutive weeks.
They sacked Schaub three times, raising their season sack total to 11. Their last two opponents were a combined 7-for-27 on third down. And they have allowed just 523 total yards the past two weeks after getting gouged for 510 in one night by Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
How are the Ravens doing it? There are many factors at play, but the most simplistic explanation is that defensive coordinator Dean Pees is putting his talented defenders in position to make plays and they are executing the way they should. The communication is clearer. The coverage is tighter. And the presence of a dangerous pass rush always helps.
As was the case against the Browns, the Ravens generated some pressure with timely blitzes. But more often, they were able to fluster Schaub with a four-man rush, allowing them to drop seven in coverage and keep two safeties deep. All three of their sacks came when a Ravens defender outmuscled the man blocking him and tossed Schaub to the ground. On the back end, cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith held their ground against Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, a pair of wide receivers with size and big-play ability.
This is the stingy defense I expected to see this season, the one that apparently missed the team charter to Denver. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are gone -- OK, fine, they were both there Sunday, but neither was wearing a Ravens uniform -- but the revamped Baltimore defense has playmakers at all three levels and appears to have the same resiliency of last year's unit.
Lewis, on the Ravens sideline in a snazzy suit, and Reed, across the field in a white Texans jersey, had to take pride in what they saw from Suggs, Haloti Ngata and the defense they left behind.
With those two watching, the Ravens delivered a throwback performance, winning with defense and special teams and getting by with an offense that gained just 236 total yards and earned 12 first downs that didn’t result from Texans penalties.
In one ugly loss and the two subsequent wins, the Ravens were defined by defense, just like the days of old.
That offense remains a concern this morning, no doubt. The offensive line has struggled, the pass-catchers aren’t catching enough passes and the running backs haven’t been running far enough. But after a game like this, the defense deserves to be appreciated a little longer.
After a down year in 2012 and a Week 1 loss, the Ravens defense is hunting again. Quarterbacks, you have been warned.
One thing that I learned
The Ravens will be contenders again this season. Don’t get me wrong, I thought they would be before the season started and that belief wasn’t shaken by the blowout loss against the Broncos and the shaky win over the Browns. But they had to go out and prove it by beating a good team. After a slow start, the Ravens stunned the Texans with two second-quarter touchdowns in a span of one minute and 54 seconds. From that point forward, they dominated a team that is expected to compete for another AFC South title. The Ravens pounded Schaub, corralled Arian Foster and Ben Tate and hogged the ball in the second half en route to a 21-point victory that suggests they will be in the mix at season’s end.
Handing out game balls
Baltimore’s Smith brothers, Torrey and Daryl, earn my offensive and defensive game balls, respectively. Torrey Smith, who had five catches for 92 yards, continues to be the offense’s only consistent playmaker, the quarterback excluded. Daryl Smith, meanwhile, turned the tide in this one with his pick-six of Schaub. And how about Tandon Doss? Cut by the Ravens after the preseason, Doss, who was brought back after the Week 1 injury to Jacoby Jones, earned a little of redemption by taking a punt 82 yards to the house. He deserves one, too.
This week’s head-scratcher
I know they have faced three stout front sevens in the first three weeks, but are these Ravens ever going to be able to run the ball? They entered the game averaging 2.8 yards per carry and actually fared worse against the Texans, averaging 2.4. Bernard Pierce started in place of the injured Ray Rice and often looked tentative, though that was understandable considering he rarely had lanes to run through. On 12 of his 24 runs, Pierce gained two yards or less. It took him two tries to pound one into the end zone from a yard out. And if you ignore his 25-yard run in the fourth quarter, he had 40 yards on 23 carries. You can spread the blame around, but the Ravens need to get this ground game going.
They said it (or tweeted it)
“The love that’s out there in that stadium and the love that this city has for me and the respect that these players have for me, it’s overwhelming. It’s humbling.” -- Lewis, the former Ravens middle linebacker who was inducted into the M&T Bank Stadium Ring of Honor at halftime.
The stat that stands out
0 -- red-zone touchdowns scored by the Texans. They had scored seven touchdowns in their seven red-zone trips this season, but the Ravens held them to two field goals on Sunday.
Three (thoughts) and out
1. For the second straight week, tight end Ed Dickson was shut out. In fact, he wasn’t even targeted by Flacco. It is surprising to see how little of an impact he has had in the passing game -- it’s not like he is compensating for it with great blocking -- and I find it interesting that the Ravens continue to use Dallas Clark as their tight end in 11 personnel on passing downs. Clark had four catches for 46 yards, but he dropped at least one pass and looks stiff when running after the catch. One would think Dickson would be the better option on passing downs, but I’m sure there’s a reason he has remained on the sideline. Maybe his hamstring is still bothering him or maybe somebody important no longer trusts him. Or maybe this is just as good as Dickson is going to get.
2. One -- and maybe the only -- highlight from the offensive line was the play of Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda against J.J. Watt, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. For the second straight meeting, Yanda appeared to neutralize Watt. The big defensive end recorded a sack when he squeezed between Yanda and right tackle Michael Oher and he had nine tackles, including three for a loss, but I believe he did much of his damage when he didn’t line up across from Yanda, who is as nasty as they come. I’m eager to see if the grades from Pro Football Focus confirm what I thought I saw Sunday, but I suspect that Yanda will be on the plus side.
3. It was a quiet game for Texans safety Ed Reed, who was a non-factor in his Texans debut and his return to Baltimore. He recorded three tackles, two of which came when he half-heartedly steered the ballcarrier toward the sideline. And Flacco didn’t really test him, maybe because he didn’t need to with Reed lining up in deep centerfield about 25 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Still, regardless of how he played, it was cool to see Ravens fans line up three rows deep around the tunnel exiting the field and wait several minutes after the blowout win to chant “Reeeeeeeed” at the bearded ballhawk one last time. He was clearly touched by that and he got a little emotional when I asked him about it after the game. Kudos for keeping it classy, Baltimore.