Re-emergent Ravens defense could help clinch playoff berth Sunday at Browns

December 20, 2010|By Jamison Hensley, The Baltimore Sun

The Ravens can clinch a playoff berth if they win at the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

If they go after it like they did Drew Brees, the Ravens will certainly lock up a postseason spot for a team-record third straight season.

One of the biggest — and most welcomed — surprises on Sunday was how the Ravens relentlessly attacked New Orleans' high-scoring offense. It seemed like old times to see players moving around the line of scrimmage, linebackers crashing the middle and defensive backs coming off the edge.

The Ravens were aggressive, unpredictable and effective. Blitzing on over half of the passing plays, the Ravens defense recorded nine hurries, three sacks, two quarterback hits and two forced fumbles.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh wouldn't guarantee his defense would continue this high-charged game plan — "We'll let our opponents try to figure it out," he said coyly — but he acknowledged it's as much a staple of this defense as Ray Lewis.

"I think we have to keep in mind — and this is for us — that is our personality," coach John Harbaugh said one day after the Ravens' physical 30-24 win over the Saints. "We are going to be a pressure team. We don't want to back off that. Whatever percentage that ends up being, it's going to be closer to 50 percent than it's going to be zero percent by far."

Harbaugh said, "I think our players feel strongly about that. I feel strongly about that. Our coaches feel that way, too. We're a pressure defense and we'll always be a pressure defense."

The Ravens were heavily criticized for not being a pressure defense and sticking with three- and four-man rushes in their second-half collapse at Houston, where they gave up a 21-point lead before pulling out the victory in overtime.

Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison tapped into his inner Rex Ryan against the Saints and the NFL's third-ranked pass attack, sending five or more players on 51 percent of New Orleans' pass plays. That's the Ravens' highest rate of blitzes since they went after Tom Brady 56.8 percent of the time two months ago.

"We got back to Ravens football," said linebacker Tavares Gooden, who had one of the best games of his three-year career. "Our defensive coordinator put us in position to help us out and let our personality shine."

Gooden shot a gap in the middle of the offensive line and forced an intentional grounding penalty. Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson hit Brees from the blind side to slap the ball out of his hands. And safety Ed Reed, cornerback Chris Carr and dime back Haruki Nakamura all took turns blitzing to move Brees all around in the pocket.

The Ravens had a couple of reasons for this plan of attack. They wanted to get in the face of Brees and cut down on the 6-foot quarterback's ability to look downfield. They also knew their speed would cause fits for the Saints bulky offensive line.

Brees acknowledged that he was caught off-guard by the pressure because he didn't see it while watching the Ravens' game at Houston. If the Ravens' players have their way, this chaotic style of play won't be an aberration.

"I hope we do it all the time," Johnson said. "I love smashing people like that."

Coming at Brees from all angles never allowed the reigning Super Bowl MVP to get comfortable in the pocket. He rarely had a chance to look through all of his reads and often threw to his receivers on quick-hitting routes.

It was a much different scene from Houston, where the Ravens' three-man rushes gave Texans quarterback Matt Schaub enough time to scan the entire field and pick apart the Ravens' secondary.

"It's tough to cover somebody one-on-one with no pressure," cornerback Chris Carr said. "But when you get pressure like that, you know the ball's coming out quicker, you don't have to cover as long, you're going to be fresher, and you're going to have more opportunities to get your hand on the ball."

For the first time in recent memory, the Ravens' defense was getting questioned by the national media leading up to the game against New Orleans. On "NFL Gameday Morning," former San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions coach Steve Mariucci was asked if the Ravens had lost their mystique on defense.

"I don't know about mystique, but I know the coach and player personnel is not the same as they used to be," he said. "It's like a BLT sandwich without the tomato. It's not a BLT."

Former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin agreed, adding, "This defense still plays great defense for this league, but they have lost some of that 'greatest ever' defense. When you hear guys like Ed Reed say, 'Only the W matters,' they understand that they are no longer the greatest ever, but they're still winning."

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