The Houston Texans are no joke, boasting the league’s #2 defense and #2 rushing attack. They ran for 188 yards last week against the Cincinnati Bengals, who were one of the best in the league at stopping opposing running backs in their own right (at least until their final two games). While the Ravens will have a decided home field advantage – including a raucous M&T Bank Stadium bowl full of ravin’ Raven maniacs as well as game time temperatures in the high 30’s against a warm-weather dome team – they will have to slow down Houston’s impressive running attack in order to advance to championship weekend.
It’s a cliche in the NFL – make the other team one-dimensional and you greatly improve your chances of success. It’s a cliche for a reason though: it’s usually true. Unless the opponent boasts one of the league’s great quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, or Aaron Rodgers (at least one of whom the Ravens are very likely to have to deal with at some point should they hope to hoist the Lombardi Trophy), putting the game squarely on the shoulders of the QB is a proven formula for victory.
When – as in the case of the Houston Texans – the other team comes in with a starting quarterback who is not only a rookie, but who is making just his seventh career start, and his first on the road in a hostile postseason environment, the tried-and-true “make them one dimensional” formula that defensive coordinators espouse constantly seems an even clearer path to success.
That said, there are two ways the Ravens can force the Texans to have to throw the ball. Both are, of course, much easier said than done.
1. Bottle up Arian Foster and Ben Tate
The most obvious way to force the Texans to the air is to stop the run, and to set up third-and-long situations. When these two teams met in Week 6, the Ravens did exactly that, and it went a long way towards the ultimate outcome of a 29-14 win. Arian Foster managed just 49 yards on 15 carries (3.3 ypc), while fellow running back Ben Tate fared only slightly better, picking up 41 on 9 (4.6 ypc). Foster, a Ray Rice-esque dual threat, also managed 52 yards on 6 receptions. While “holding” Foster to over 101 yards from scrimmage doesn’t seem all that impressive, consider that he had nearly 200 last week against the Bengals.
Foster’s running style is a near-perfect fit for Houston’s zone blocking scheme. Mike Mayock of NFL Network stated during the game Saturday that Foster was the best zone runner he has seen in the league since Denver’s Terrell Davis – very high praise. In Week 6, the Ravens played extremely disciplined run defense, setting the edge strongly and maintaining gap integrity in pursuit, not allowing Foster his signature cutback move. The Bengals did exactly the opposite of that, overpursuing and sloppily trying to fill gaps, and you saw what happened – Foster gashed them over and over.
After watching last week’s film, the importance of playing the kind of run stuffing defense they did in Week 6 will be blatantly obvious to Ravens’ defenders.
2. Jump out to an early lead
The other way to force the Texans to throw the ball early and often is to put the ball in the end zone a few times early in the game, and build a double-digit lead.
Again, much easier said than done against the #2 defense.
Still, the Ravens – who aren’t typically known as a fast-out-of-the-gates kind of team, managed double digit halftime leads in four of their final five victories:
Week 13 – at Cleveland – Halftime Score: 10-0
Week 14 – vs. Indy – 17-3
Week 16 – vs. Cleveland – 17-0
Week 17 – vs. Cincinnati – 17-3
If B’More can put up a couple quick scores, it will put Houston in the extremely unenviable position of having to ask rookie T.J. Yates to try to bring them back through the air. That should be a recipe for disaster for the Texans, Andre Johnson or no Andre Johnson.
I’m not going to lie – Arian Foster scares me. At the same time though, I have confidence that a fully rested Haloti Ngata, Terrence Cody, Cory Redding, Ray Lewis, Jarret Johnson, Terrell Suggs, Bernard Pollard and company can put the clamps on him just as they did earlier this year, and can take advantage of Yates’ inexperience.