Justin Tucker, Defense Help Ravens Rediscover Their True Identity

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVDecember 17, 2013

AP Images

The Baltimore Ravens had their backs against the wall heading into Detroit to take on the Lions on Monday night. With a 1-5 record on the road and an erratic offense staring down the third-best red-zone defense, it was going to take a lot of hard work in the trenches to pull out a win.

That Lions red-zone defense was on display against the Ravens, with Baltimore scoring not a single touchdown. But they weren't without weapons and they didn't leave losers. No, thanks to their defense and to their second-year kicker, Justin Tucker, the Ravens defeated the Lions, 18-16, and kept their playoff hopes alive.

While the Lions might have a red-zone defense that ranks in the top three, the Ravens were tied for first in red-zone defense with the Carolina Panthers heading into Monday night.

And while the Lions have a proven veteran kicker in David Akers, Tucker came into the night having made 27 straight field goals, the longest active streak in the NFL. That reliable leg kicked six field goals on Monday, including a 61-yard game winner, the longest field goal made in Ravens team history.

Tucker told the Associated Press (via Yahoo! Sports) after the game, "If they send me out there, they have reason to. It's because they think I can make the kick."

Baltimore's defense managed only one sack, earned by linebacker Daryl Smith in the first half, but they brought near-constant pressure on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, not allowing him to build a rhythm.

In coverage, the Ravens were impressive. Cornerback Jimmy Smith shadowed the league's best receiver, Calvin Johnson, all night and gave up only 98 yards and no touchdowns on six catches. The Ravens also intercepted Stafford three times, the final coming in the waning seconds of the game. 

AFC Playoff Standings Through Week 15
1.(x) Denver Broncos11-3
2.New England Patriots10-4
3.Cincinnati Bengals9-5
4.(z) Indianapolis Colts9-5
5.(x) Kansas City Chiefs11-3
6.Baltimore Ravens8-6
(z): Clinched division; (x): Clinched playoff berth

Against a tough Lions defense, the Ravens found other ways to pull out a much-needed win. Quarterback Joe Flacco didn't have the most productive day, completing 20 of 38 passes for 222 yards and no scores. However, the offensive line at least helped keep him from making mistakes. Against an unrelenting pass rush, the Ravens line gave up only one sack after allowing 41 going into Week 15. They also helped the run game along to a good-for-the-Ravens 90 rushing yards. 

The red-zone struggles could have cost the Ravens the win, but they rightfully trusted in their kicker. Facing a 4th-and-8 with 43 seconds left in the game and down by one point, most other teams would try to take a shot down the field to convert and keep their drive alive. However, with Tucker already clearing five field goals, Jim Harbaugh allowed him to try to win the game.

The impressive showing by Baltimore's defense and special teams gave the Ravens their fourth straight win. The Ravens are now in control of their playoff destiny; winning out means they take control of the AFC North. They are no longer on the outside looking in.

Though they have two tough contests ahead, hosting the New England Patriots on Sunday before closing out their season in Cincinnati against the Bengals, this all-but-routine win in Detroit shows just how dangerous a team the Ravens are right now. 

It may not seem that way, with Baltimore having won a football game on field goals alone, but it helps illustrate just how much fight the Ravens have as a team. Many times, the Ravens seemed able to move the ball at will except in the area of the field where it mattered, but Tucker was able to come through to at least put points on the board. The Lions boast many playmakers, from Johnson and Stafford to Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, but no matter how many times the Ravens defense seemed to bend, it did not break. 

For the Ravens, who want nothing more than to be able to rightfully defend last season's Super Bowl championship, it's about getting the win and not how they got it. If defense and a can't-miss kicker is how they can reach the football field in January, they'll gladly take it. If this is their identity, it's certainly a winning one. That's really all that matters.