The last time the Ravens and Texans met, the stakes were higher, but this week's game will decide which team is presently the AFC's best.
The Baltimore Ravens travel to Houston to take on the Texans on Sunday, with the winner holding the sole lead in the AFC, and they'll be doing so without a number of their most important defensive players.
Linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb are both done for the season, with the latter suffering an ACL tear last week against the Dallas Cowboys and the former tearing his triceps in the same game.
Safety Ed Reed is dealing with a torn labrum in his shoulder, and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata has an MCL sprain, and for a defense that wasn't performing up to expectations before these injuries, having two more hurt starters—despite the fact that they'll play this week—doesn't help matters.
The Ravens, therefore, have quite the mountain to climb this Sunday if they are to defeat the Texans. It's not impossible, however—here's a two-step game plan for how they can do it.
Bend, But Don't Break
With the defensive injuries mounting and trouble stopping both the run and the pass prior to Lewis' and Webb's seasons ending early, the Ravens are likely going to struggle to contain the Texans offense this week—especially running back Arian Foster.
With 561 rushing yards to his name so far this season, Foster is the league's second-leading rusher, while the Ravens are ranked just 26th against the rush, giving up 136.5 yards per game on average and 441 total rushing yards in the last two weeks. Clearly, the Texans are going to rely heavily on Foster (as well as fellow backs Ben Tate and Justin Forsett) to move the ball for their offense.
It's not an inevitability that the Ravens will again give up triple-digit numbers to an opponent's run game, but Foster is one of the very best backs in the league and the Ravens simply haven't had much success in keeping any ball carrier at bay. Though Baltimore's defense cannot sit back and let Foster run at will, if that indeed happens, its focus needs to shift from keeping him contained to keeping the Texans from scoring.
Simply because the Ravens are giving up so many rushing yards, they're also giving up a lot of rushing touchdowns—1.2 per game on average, ranking them 24th in the league. Last week, they gave up one, to the Cowboys' Felix Jones, but the previous week, they didn't allow a single Kansas City Chiefs touchdown.
Granted, the Texans are a far better all-around team than the Chiefs, but they still allowed 214 rushing yards and no scores beyond two field goals. All the yards in the world don't matter if they result in no points or just a field goal rather than a touchdown.
That's the concept behind the "bend, but don't break" defense. When executed correctly, it lulls opposing offenses into a false sense of security—they've been driving with success, so there's an assumption that scoring will come just as easily as the yards that got them into the red zone. Then, the defense stiffens and ideally prevents the touchdown—or even the field goal if executed properly.
The Ravens defense isn't in an ideal situation at present. From the front seven to the secondary, tackling both running backs and receivers simply isn't happening. They aren't the fierce, fearsome group they've been for over a decade. The intimidation factor is no longer there, so the Ravens must find another identity. "Easy to run on" isn't the best option, but when it's augmented by "impossible to score on," that's all that really matters.
Offense, Offense, Offense
Clearly, another way the Ravens will have to augment their defensive failings is to rely heavily on their offense. They've had to do so already this year, first to make up for their anemic pass rush without linebacker Terrell Suggs and then to carry the team as the defense collapsed, and they'll have to do it again this week.
On average, the Ravens are giving up only 19.7 points per game while putting up 26.8 of their own. This trend of outscoring opponents will need to continue on Sunday, especially against the Texans, who are averaging 28.8 points per game.
If the defense does its job as described above—i.e. bends, but doesn't break—it'll likely be able to hold the Texans to below that 28 to 29-point average. But whether they do or they don't, the Ravens still need their offense to lead them to a win.
The Ravens offense serves two purposes, here. One is to score points—you know, the reason why offenses exist in the NFL to begin with—and the other is to keep the defense off the field. The Ravens have an average time of possession of 26:50, ranking them 28th in the league. Opposing offenses are driving, driving, driving, eating clock and giving the Ravens offense little time in which to make plays.
That hasn't harmed Baltimore thus far—it is, after all, 5-1 and outscoring many teams in the league despite that low time of possession—but against the Texans, this week, it need its offense to be on the field as long as possible, extend drives, run the ball and then run it again, all in hopes that less time for the Texans offense to do their work (and in turn, less time on the field for Baltimore's defense) can also help set them up for a win.
Running is important here. It eats time, and the Ravens happen to have Ray Rice, one of the league's best backs, to carry the ball. Further, Baltimore might find itself in the situation of having to run often, if the passing game doesn't find a rhythm in another team's stadium.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is having a strong, consistent season thus far, and part of the reason for it is a greater reliance on quick passing and the no-huddle. However, no-huddle is more difficult on the road—crowd noise makes audibles at the line extremely difficult. When it comes to passing, the Ravens may have to slow things down, which does help with the clock-killing approach they need to take, but also doesn't best suit the strengths of Flacco and his receivers.
However they see fit to pass or run the ball, however, it's not going to come easily. The Texans defense ranks seventh against both the run and the pass, and though the Ravens are a top-10 team in total yardage, they've played just one team with a defense comparable, in terms of yardage allowed, to the Texans.
The Ravens will have to mix things up this week. Both tight ends, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, need to factor into the passing game, especially considering how much attention Houston's secondary will be giving to wide receiver Torrey Smith. Anquan Boldin will likely be a major target as a result of Smith seeing constant double coverage. Rice will also be involved in the passing game, as he usually is, and Bernard Pierce will likely get a few carries and targets of his own.
A varied passing attack combined with a greater commitment to running the ball—even when behind—can keep the ball in the Ravens offense's hands, can give them more opportunities to score and can prevent the Texans' offense and, thus, Baltimore's defense from being on the field.
The name of the game for the Ravens, until something changes, is "defense in triage," and the way to heal it, at least in the shortest possible term, is to continue producing on offense. Just keep putting up points, and wins should follow, even this week against the Texans.