Ravens middle linebacker Daryl Smith catches passes from the JUGS machine for about 10 minutes before the start of every practice, so he knows exactly what to do when he breaks on an underneath route and finds a ball coming directly toward his chest.
It's what happened following the interception, the 37-yard sprint with nobody in front of him and the end zone, that left the veteran of 10 NFL seasons in a trance that carried him all the way back to the sideline.
"I guess it's sort of like a dream," Smith said. "You catch it, and it's just kind of hazy."
With the two players that defined the Ravens' defensive excellence for over a decade in the house — one wearing a suit and the other sporting the opposing uniform — the statement made by this year's Ravens' defense in a 30-9 dismantling of the Houston Texans in front of an announced 71,168 at M&T Bank Stadium was clear.
They have no Ray Lewis or Ed Reed, but they do have an aggressive and capable defense that has now gone two full games without allowing a touchdown following the debacle against the Denver Broncos in Week 1.
In the lopsided win over one of the AFC's elite teams, the Ravens (2-1) scored 30 of the game's final 33 points, a run keyed by Smith's 37-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the second quarter, an 82-yard punt return score for Tandon Doss and a defense that allowed only a long field goal over the Texans' last eight drives.
"We love them, we respect them, but it's something we're just trying to move on and let everybody know that we still could be a great 'D' without those two guys," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "They mean a lot to us. We love them to death but still, we wanted to find ourselves. We want to be a great defense."
Lewis, who played 17 seasons with the Ravens before retiring following the victory in Super Bowl XLVII, was inducted into the Ring of Honor at halftime. Reed, who played 11 seasons in Baltimore before signing with the Texans in the offseason, was greeted warmly by the capacity crowd. However, he was a non-factor in the game, while the Ravens defense that he departed helped shut down the Texans' vaunted running attack and frustrate Texans quarterback Matt Schaub.
Smith, the former Jacksonville Jaguar who was signed in June as a replacement for Lewis, not only had the interception that gave the Ravens a lead that they'd never relinquish but he made a game-high 10 tackles. Veteran safety James Ihedigbo, picked up by the Ravens after he was waived by the New England Patriots in August 2012, had nine tackles, including two for losses, and two passes defended. Fellow safety Matt Elam, the team's first-round pick in April, had five tackles and one pass break-up.
Old standbys Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Arthur Jones each pitched in with a sack as Schaub never really had the time to exploit the Ravens down the field.
"Whenever there's a changing of the tide, a torch being passed down of the generation — the time that these guys have spent, Ed Reed, Ray Lewis in terms of their leadership, their play — there has to be guys that step up," Ihedigbo said. "Younger guys are looking around like, 'Who is that guy going to be?' Across the board, guys are playing at such a high level, it's awesome.
"It was at the top of our goals on the board this week: no big plays and no touchdowns. That comes down to execution and communication. We played fast, we played physical, we played relentless. That was the outcome on the field."
The Ravens' defense actually set the tone early in the game by twice allowing the Texans to get deep into its territory, only to hold them to field goals. When Randy Bullock converted a 29-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter, the Texans led 6-0 but that actually was good news for the Ravens, who gained only 10 yards of total offense over the first 15 minutes and watched the visitors control the ball for over 12 minutes.
The Ravens finally got on the board on Justin Tucker's 28-yard field goal with just over four minutes left in the second quarter. On the Texans' next drive, Smith scored on the interception return. And then after the Ravens had forced another Shane Lechler punt, Doss caught it, made a couple of moves and then tight-roped down the sideline for the 82-yard score.
In a span of three minutes, 10 seconds, a 6-0 Texans' lead morphed into a 17-6 deficit.
"Both were huge," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It's 14 points — that's what it really boils down to. Anytime you're able to score 14 points — I don't care how you do it, especially in quick fashion like that — it's a tremendous turning point."
With the way their defense was playing, the Ravens all but put the game away when they took the opening kickoff of the second half and drove 80 yards on nine plays, culminating in a 1-yard touchdown run by Bernard Pierce. Wide receiver Torrey Smith came up big on the drive with two catches for 72 yards.
Bouncing back following a shaky performance from last week, Tucker added two field goals in the fourth quarter to provide even more comfort for the Ravens.
"Any time you can start off slow like that, have some help from your defense and your special teams, that really propelled us today," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "We are a young team. We have a lot of new guys, and we were thin at the running back position today. We are going to have some growing pains throughout the first couple of weeks. I have said all along, the biggest thing will be can we win while we have those? So far, the last two weeks, we haven't played great, but we've managed to win football games against two pretty good football teams."
Under duress for much of the first half, Flacco finished 16-of-24 for 171 yards and didn't throw an interception for the second straight game. Pierce, getting his first start for an injured Ray Rice, rushed 24 times for 65 yards and a touchdown. The Ravens again averaged just 2.4 yards a carry but the run game got better as the game went on.
But like so many times with Lewis and Reed manning the middle of the field, this one was about their defense, authoring a performance that would have made Ravens' defenses of yesteryear proud.
"The defense has always been great around here for a long time," said Reed who made three tackles. "Like I told the guys coming into this game, defensively, they're going to know every move that you're making. … Nobody wants to lose but we played against a great team today."