Texans receiver Kevin Walter already knows what it will be like the first time on the first encounter with former teammate and current Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard on the field Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
“Bernard’s going to be back there chirping and saying his thing,” Walter said this week. “He’s going to try to hit me in the mouth and I’m going to try to hit him in the mouth and that’s what it’s all about. It’s about going out there, making plays and being physical.”
There is an unchallengeable argument to be made that no defense does that better than the Ravens, who are led by two future Hall of Famers in linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed. They talk a good game, but then they back it up no other to give the Ravens the distinction of being the gold standard of NFL defenses the last decade.
Somehow the Texans will look to do what few offenses have managed to do in the last 10 years and that is find weaknesses in Baltimore where there are seemingly none. It’s a task so great that Texans coach Gary Kubiak jumped on it almost immediately after his team lost to Oakland last week.
“They’re exceptional. I think they’re number two in the league right now,” Kubiak said. “You got two Hall of Famers on the defense and have been playing together forever. It just seems like forever. I played against them in Denver many a times in the playoffs. They’re built around those two guys and the group together is just incredible.”
The Ravens are coming off a mind-boggling performance two weeks ago (they had a bye last week) in which they scored three defensive touchdowns during a 34-17 win over the New York Jets. That was very reminiscent of their 2000 Super Bowl run when their defense was their best offense.
The amazing thing is they are doing so with a very veteran unit. Players like outside Terrell Suggs and nose tackle Haloti Ngata seem like youngsters but have six Pro Bowl appearances between them and have been in the league since 2003 and 2006, respectively.
The unit continues to defy the logic of aging as it still seems to dominate the way it did 10 years ago.
“I don’t see anybody slowing down,” said Texans offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. “You watch the film with me. You point it out because I can’t find it.”
Amazingly, as it did in 2000, it all still starts with Lewis. After all these years he remains the Ravens leader in every sense.
In his 16th season in the league, Lewis is still making the same kind of difference-making plays and hits that allow him to go down as many the best linebacker this game has ever known. He is the player which Texans running back Arian Foster and quarterback Matt Schaub will have to watch closest Sunday.
“He’s still Ray Lewis. He still plays instinctive, reacts to what he sees,” Schaub said. “He’s seen virtually everything that you can throw at him.
“You just have to know where he is and much like number 20 on the back-end (Ed Reed), you’ve got to know where he’s at and 55 up front (Terrell Suggs). They have a ton of playmakers and you’ve got to account for them wherever they are.”
But locating them and being able to lay a hat on them seems to be two entirely different things. The Ravens always have one more man around the football than opposing offenses can block, which is why they rank second in the NFL against the run allowing opponents just 72.5 yards per game.
A couple weeks ago this would have been an intriguing matchup of strength against strength when the Texans were looking to be one of the best rushing offenses in the league this season with any back that was available. But we saw last week against Oakland that without the deep threat of All-Pro receiver Andre Johnson in the Texans lineup, teams can drop eight in the box and making running the ball nearly impossible.
And the last thing you want to do is make things simple for an already dominant Ravens defense.
“They present so (many) challenges. They do everything very well,” said Foster, who is coming off a disappointing 68-yard rushing effort for a 3.1 yards per carry last week against Oakland. “They know each other very well and on top of that, they’re some of the best athletes in our game today, so it just makes it that much more difficult.”
But as good as the Ravens are, they are far from impossible to penetrate. You just have to play mistake-free football and make them pay on every blitz. Now the hard part is being successful on both of those fronts in a game.
“They stop offenses from doing that very well,” Foster said, “so we have to stay on schedule and make sure we don’t make a lot of mistakes.”