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BALTIMORE — It was fitting for future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to be present Sunday to witness a vintage defensive performance by the Ravens in their 30-9 win over the Houston Texans.
On a day in which the offense once again struggled to move the ball with any level of consistency, the Ravens leaned on their defense to handle the heavy lifting in a way similar to yesteryear when Lewis would dominate in the middle of the defense and Reed would lurk in the secondary. Assuming Lewis’ vacated spot in the defense this season, veteran inside linebacker Daryl Smith provided the defensive highlight, picking off a Matt Schaub pass and sprinting 37 yards for the first touchdown of his 10-year career to turn a 6-3 deficit into a lead the Ravens wouldn’t relinquish the rest of the afternoon.
The defensive touchdown was one more than the Texans provided all day as the Ravens have now gone back-to-back games without allowing a touchdown for the first time since 2010.
Just like old times.
“I just remember catching it and just running as fast as I could, trying to get in there,” said Smith, who finished with a game-high 10 tackles. “I’m not a dancer or nothing like that. I just gave them a little something and just went on back to the bench and got ready and lined back up.”
Smith may epitomize this Baltimore defense better than anyone with his unassuming, quiet demeanor, which is a dramatic change from the in-your-face style of Lewis and the bravado of past Ravens defenses. Even the brash Terrell Suggs has quieted down in 2013 as the Ravens move on from the Lewis era while still having high expectations for themselves.
That diminished bravado may have come in handy after the Ravens allowed a franchise-worst 49 points and seven touchdown passes in their humbling 49-27 defeat to the Denver Broncos in the season opener. All the talk of the Ravens having a better defense than a season ago seemed silly after watching Peyton Manning carve up the secondary, but neither the coaching staff nor players panicked after Week 1.
They’ve certainly rebounded in a major way. Shutting down the Cleveland Browns offense is one thing, but holding the Texans to just three field goals will demand attention from future opponents.
“We played better,” said coach John Harbaugh when asked to explain what’s changed for his defense since the big loss to the Broncos. “The biggest difference is [that] we haven’t given up the big plays.”
Dean Pees’ unit held the Houston offense without a play of 20 or more yards on Sunday after giving up nine plays of 20 or more in their season-opening defeat. For the second straight week, the play of the front seven stood out as the Ravens collected three sacks and seven quarterback hits while holding the Texans to 264 total yards overall and only 107 after halftime.
Houston quarterback Matt Schaub finished with only 194 yards on 35 passing attempts as he settled for short-to-intermediate passes for much of the afternoon as veteran wideout Andre Johnson dealt with a leg issue in the second half.
The Texans were just 3-for-12 on third down with no stop bigger than safety James Ihedigbo’s pass breakup of a pass intended for tight end Owen Daniels on third-and-goal from the Baltimore 9 on the opening drive. The play held Houston to a field goal on a 16-play drive and set the tone for what would be an exceptional day for the Ravens defense.
“You’ve got to get off the field on third down, and we did that today,” said defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who collected his first sack of the season on Sunday. “Hopefully that’s something that we’ll continue to be successful at and, really, we just want to continue to get even better in all phases.”
It’s not a perfect defense by any means with some vulnerability in the secondary in which the Texans were either unable or unwilling to test, but the Ravens defense is looking as good as advertised in the summer after two convincing performances to rebound from the debacle in Denver. The strength of this unit is its front seven, which was particularly impressive on Sunday considering defensive end Chris Canty didn’t play and backup nose tackle Terrence Cody exited in the first half.
For the most part, the Ravens have controlled the running game and created consistent pressure on quarterbacks through the first three games of the 2013 season, and that’s a formula to not only help out an imperfect secondary but to keep you in games when your offense is sputtering as it has so far this season.
The Ravens continue to be a work in progress on offense — and that’s putting it kindly after they were held to 236 yards on 57 offensive plays against Houston — but their defense is getting the job done to win games right now. An 82-yard punt return for a touchdown by Tandon Doss certainly helped, but the defense has paved the way for victory in each of the last two weeks, which is exactly what the Ravens hoped for when they brought in the likes of Elvis Dumervil, Canty, and Smith in the offseason.
“Each week, we want to concentrate on getting better, and that’s what we’ve been doing,” Smith said. “And each week, we’ll grow together, we’ll gain more chemistry, we’ll learn to trust each other more, and I think we’ve done that the last two weeks. We just have to continue to do that.”
Harbaugh and the Ravens can only hope the offense follows suit as it’s difficult to depend on touchdowns by your defense and special teams to put you in position to win every week, but you’ll take a victory however you can earn it against an AFC contender like Houston. The Ravens defense did to the Texans what they’re used to achieving against their opponents — they zapped the life right out of the them as the game progressed.
Questions and concerns continue to remain about the offense and how it will produce enough to put the Ravens in good position to win most games, but the picture is becoming clearer for the defense.
And you have to like what you see.
“We’re not satisfied by any means,” said Suggs, who collected a sack for the third straight game. “We know we’ve still got to work, and that’s what we’re going to do.”