The Baltimore Ravens picked the right time to start playing defense again.
For most of this season, they stumbled along, hemorrhaging points and yards as critics questioned what happened to a unit that was once the backbone of the team. Well, key players were hurt, that's what, and now that they're back so is the Baltimore defense.
OK, so these aren't your 2000 Ravens. Few teams are. But they're good enough, sound enough and physical enough on defense to make critical stops, force key turnovers and become the force they were not a couple of months ago -- and if you're skeptical I suggest you roll the videotape of that blow Bernard Pollard put on Stevan Ridley in the second half of the Ravens' 28-13 defeat of New England Sunday.
|More on NFL|
|NFL conference championships|
|More NFL coverage|
Ridley fumbled and did not play again.
"That was the turning point of the game," Ravens' coach John Harbaugh said afterward. "It was just a tremendous hit. It was football at its finest. It was Bernard Pollard making a great physical tackle -- just as good a tackle as you're ever going to see in football right there."
But good tackles and big stops are happening more and more with these guys, and let's review the past three weeks. Against Indianapolis, the Ravens didn't allow a touchdown to Andrew Luck. Against Denver, they forced three Peyton Manning turnovers that led to 17 points. And in their rematch with New England in the AFC championship game, they shut out Tom Brady in the second half, producing the first defeat of Brady in 68 home games where he started and New England led at the half.
"This is how we play the game," Pollard said.
So we noticed.
But it's not how they always played this season when they ranked 17th overall, 15th in sacks and tied for 12th in scoring. Four opponents put up 30 or more points on them, including 43 by Houston, while Dallas and Kansas City shredded them for over 200 yards rushing in back-to-back games.
When Denver dominated them on Dec. 16, the Ravens' third consecutive defeat and second straight at home, safety Ed Reed admitted that he was "embarrassed for our city." There was something missing then, and that something was Pollard ... and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe ... and linebacker Ray Lewis.
None of them was in the lineup, and, now that they are, the results speak for themselves. In three playoff games, Baltimore's defense has been punctured for only four touchdowns -- three by Manning and one by Brady -- and, yes, that means I'm not counting the Trindon Holliday returns in Denver. That's on the special teams -- not the Ravens' defense.
So that's ... let's see ... 43 points in three starts, and that's more than acceptable; it's what drove darkhorses like the Giants and Green Bay Packers to Super Bowl victories the past two seasons.
In fact, it's reminiscent of previous Baltimore teams that stuffed opponents with defense while struggling to manufacture points on offense. But that was then, and this is now, and now these Ravens average 30 points per game in the playoffs, don't make mistakes and hold an 8-3 advantage in the all-important takeaway-to-turnover ratio.
More important, they haven't lost, and give quarterback Joe Flacco much of the credit. The guy's on a roll, with eight TDs and no interceptions in postseason play. But the defense is, too, with Sunday's second-half shutout of Brady the most compelling evidence.
"When you look at our defense," Harbaugh said, "it's become a young defense. We need to adjust what we were doing a little bit schematically, and we did that. We got back to playing; we got [back] to playing those guys in a very fundamentally sound way. And it showed up in the way we played defense the second half of the season."
One reason is that Terrell Suggs, the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year, rejoined the team. Suggs is an impact player whose season was threatened by an Achilles injury suffered last spring. Another is the return of Ellerbee and Pollard, two of the Ravens' leading tacklers. But there is no way to overstate the importance of Lewis' presence, and, yeah, I know he's not the dominant player he once was. But tell me who leads the Ravens in playoff tackles and who's the inspiration behind this three-week run.
You're looking at him, folks.
"God is awesome," Lewis said. "It's our time."
Maybe he's right. All I know is that I witnessed Baltimore beat Manning for the first time in 10 starts. I watched it beat Tom Brady in a conference championship game at home, where he never loses conference championship games. And I've seen the resurrection of a Baltimore defense that was supposed to be a liability and the reason the Ravens would not get this far.
So they surrender 415 yards a game in the playoffs, while opponents convert 45 percent of their third downs. Big deal. Look a little closer, and you'll find opponents averaging 4.9 yards per play (San Francisco's opponents average 6.8) and producing 10 points (not including Holliday's returns) in a second half Baltimore owns -- with a 52-17 overall advantage.
Better yet, in the Ravens' past four victories they held Eli Manning, Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady -- a group with six Super Bowl rings -- to a 55.3 percent completion rate, with nine sacks, five touchdowns, five interceptions and a combined passer rating of 70.23.
Maybe now you understand what I mean about the Ravens' defense finding its mojo again.
"This is what we're about," Pollard said. "We're about hitting, we're about running, running fast and playing hard for four quarters."
They're about playing defense, period, and they always have been. Now, they're back where they belong and at just the right time.