Peter Schmuck: Road to victory begins with offensive line

January 10, 2012|Peter Schmuck

Let me apologize in advance, because what I'm about to tell you is something that would have caused the legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell to turn to first-generation "Monday Night Football" analyst Don Meredith and say, in loving derision, "Thank you, Dandy Don, for that piercing look into the obvious."

When the Ravens host the Houston Texans on Sunday in the first home playoff game of the John Harbaugh era, the chance to advance to the AFC championship game will come down to … wait for it … which offensive line is able to spring its big-play running back and give its quarterback time to get the ball out on third down.

There, I said it. I'm slightly embarrassed, because you probably already knew that unless you're reading this on the Internet at the new Ravens Roost in Micronesia. But the Ravens couldn't say enough during Monday's news conference about the way the Texans play in front of superback Arian Foster, highly productive No. 2 back Ben Tate and young quarterback T.J. Yates.

In fact, if you listen to defensive end Cory Redding describe Houston's zone blocking scheme, you might think he had gone to the ballet instead of going facemask-to-facemask with those guys in Week 6.

"If you look at them from behind, it's almost like every one of them is on a string,'' Redding said. "If they are going to the left, everybody is stepping with their left foot and they are running to the left. If they are going to the right, everybody steps with their right foot and they are moving to their right. It's like everybody is on sequence. Everybody is running and flowing together."

When the Texans are good, they are very good. Foster averaged 94 yards per game during the regular season and just tore through the Cincinnati Bengals defense for 153 yards and two touchdowns in the Texans' decisive victory in the wild-card playoff round. Tate is dangerous, too, averaging more than 60 yards per game to rank among the top 25 rushers in the league.

Clearly, Foster can do some special things all by himself — as he demonstrated on that amazing 42-yard touchdown run against the Bengals — but no running back has that kind of success without a terrific O-line. The Texans' blocking scheme is so complex that when Ravens coach John Harbaugh was asked to describe it and explain why it's so effective, he playfully asked for a chalkboard.

"It challenges the whole width of the (defensive) front, basically,'' Harbaugh said. "It gets the front moving, and it challenges them to expand with it; move with the front, stay square, maintain gap control and control the blocker. What they try to do is basically expand the area that you have to cover horizontally and then find a crease. A back like Arian Foster finds the crease a lot of times. So, it's not like it's running in one hole. It can basically run anywhere from the tight end to the backside tackle."

The Ravens handled it pretty well the first time around. Foster averaged just 3.3 yards on 15 carries and combined with Tate for a total of 90 yards and no touchdowns (though the Texans did score off a Tate fumble into the end zone). Meanwhile, Ray Rice rushed 23 times for 101 yards, Joe Flacco passed for 305 yards and the Ravens dominated the second half to score an important victory with what could have been significant tiebreaker implications.

Redding chalked up the success of the Ravens defense in that game to discipline and solid teamwork.

"Everybody was disciplined in their gaps,'' Redding said. "If someone got out of their gap, the linebacker covered them, or the defender really hustled to get back in his gap leverage. When you are playing a zone team, like coach Harbaugh said, they try to get you running sideways. You have to stay disciplined, hold your gap and control your man. Whenever the ball decides to cut, come off the guy aggressively, [be] able to cut back and keep your base and then make a tackle. That's what everybody did. Everybody really flowed well to the ball. We stayed in our gap leverages and guys were staying square. As long as you can do that, you have a good chance against this scheme."

The tough Texans defense will face a similar challenge from the Ravens O-line, which created plenty of openings for Rice in Week 6 and allowed Flacco and Anquan Boldin to hook up eight times for 132 yards.

The Ravens need to repeat that performance and the Texans need to do a better job of opening lanes for Foster to have a decent chance of pulling the upset at M&T Bank Stadium. So, yes, it probably comes down to which offensive line performs better, but it's not like they are spending a lot of time this week thinking about each other.

"It's not what I would call competitiveness,'' said Ravens center Matt Birk. "I certainly look up to those guys as a group because of what they've been able to do for a long period of time — the level of play and how they execute the schemes. But certainly, whoever's back runs the ball better, that's probably going to be the team that wins, because both offenses are similar in that way and how they're constructed."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.

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