Ravens free safety Ed Reed zeroed in on his target, accelerating toward New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman to deliver a crushing forearm blow to the chest to break up a potential touchdown pass.
The punishing end zone hit from Reed during the first quarter of a 31-30 victory Sunday night sent a clear message about his physical approach to this season.
Unlike the end of last season where Reed exercised caution and struggled at times as a tackler due to a nerve impingement in his neck and shoulder that has bothered him for years, the eight-time Pro Bowl selection appears rejuvenated and is playing with reckless abandon again.
"I always know how to play this game," Reed said. "It's about being smart. This is not my 11th year for nothing. It's been a gift and a blessing. I know how to play football. It's not complicated."
Reed built his NFL reputation through a foundation of instinctive plays, baiting quarterbacks into interceptions. He leads all active NFL players with 59 career interceptions, returning seven for touchdowns.
Although Reed isn't as big as most safeties at 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, he does generate a lot of power and has forced a dozen career fumbles. He shook up Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch in the third quarter with a devastating illegal shot to the head, drawing a personal foul.
"Ed comes down and is very physical," fullback Vonta Leach said. "There are new rules not allowing you to be as physical, so it puts a physical player in a tough situation: to hit or not to hit. I don't know how the guys do it, but Ed is always looking to be physical."
Reed drew criticism last year when he had issues with his tackling heading into the playoffs, notably missing a chance to bring down Cincinnati Bengals running back Bernard Scott to prevent a long gain during the regular-season finale.
By the time the Ravens played the Houston Texans in an AFC divisional round playoff game weeks later, Reed stopped trying to preserve his body. His tackling improved markedly, but he had to grit his teeth and play through pain.
That doesn't appear to be a problem this year for Reed following a strenuous offseason regimen of weight lifting intended to strengthen his upper body and upgrade his durability.
"I feel good about where I'm at right now," Reed said. "It's still a long season. Like I tell the guys, it's still a lot more games to be played, a lot more football."
Reed recorded nine tackles against the Patriots, including one where he tackled Edelman for a loss of 1 yard.
Through three games, Reed leads the Ravens with two interceptions.
"Obviously, he did a really good job," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "When you watch a lot of film on these guys, Wes Welker, Edelman, Branch, all of them, they are all smaller guys, but real quick guys. Guys have the tendency to want to try to just blow them up and end up missing them.
"The biggest thing that we really tried to talk about last week is just tackle them, just get them on the ground. I thought Ed really prepared that way all week. I really thought he did a good job in the game."
Reed is a fundamentally sound tackler who doesn't always go for the head-hunting shot. For his career, he has 619 tackles.
"Keeps his head up and his eyes open," Pees said of Reed. "That's the whole key to tackling half the time. It's no secret. You can't hit what you can't see. The other thing is just keeping your head up and being able to wrap up. Anytime you drop your head, your knees lock."
Reed keeps it simple, attributing his ability to tackle to his desire and coaching.
"Just being in the right spot, doing my job, understanding scheme, understanding where my help is and using sound techniques," Reed said. "Not every game is going to be perfect. Not every game is going to be an interception or two or a big-bang tackle, so to say. You understand what your coaches are trying to get out of you."
Although Reed is regarded as a natural in the center of the field whose job doesn't call for nearly as much run support as 6-1, 225-pound strong safety Bernard Pollard. Reed is tied with Pollard, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and cornerback Lardarius Webb with 16 tackles to rank fourth on the defense.
"It's kind of funny," Pollard said. "Going into this year, Ed and I have challenged each other and we're competing for who's going to get the most tackles. Ed is showing up and showing out. This city loves him."