BALTIMORE -- It's a nice story to say the Baltimore Ravens looked like their old selves on defense on the day Ray Lewis and Ed Reed returned to Baltimore. The real story is the Ravens defense wants to establish its own identity, and this hard-hitting, quarterback-harrassing group made its boldest statement yet in a 30-9 win over the Houston Texans on Sunday.
The Ravens defense wasn't motivated by Lewis' induction into the Ring of Honor or Reed coming back with the Texans. The history that fuels the Ravens is getting ripped for seven touchdowns by Peyton Manning in the season opener.
Sure, linebacker Daryl Smith looked like Lewis when he scored on that game-changing 37-yard interception return. And James Ihedigbo looked more like Reed than Reed himself with those drive-killing plays.
But here's the bottom line: Since that Week 1 embarrassment in Denver, the Ravens haven't allowed a touchdown and have given up a total of 15 points in two games. It's too early to say the Ravens' defense is back. But this defense, which has seven new starters from the Super Bowl-winning unit, is certainly coming together with big plays, a ferocious pass rush and a defiance in the red zone.
"We feel like we can be a great defense," coach John Harbaugh said. "We're still working towards that. We talked about this last night. We do feel like we're as far along as we could possibly be right now with this group."
It's respectable when the Ravens hold the Cleveland Browns without a touchdown. It's impressive when they hold the Texans out of the end zone. The Texans have running back Arian Foster, wide receiver Andre Johnson (albeit beat up) and tight end Owen Daniels. Houston scored 30 or more points in its first two games.
The turning point for the Ravens came in Houston's first drive, when they had too many players on the field for a field goal attempt. It gave Houston a first down on the Ravens' 18-yard line, but in the prevailing theme, the defense saved the day. Ihedigbo's physical coverage on Daniels on third-and-goal forced a field goal.
"Once again, at the top of our goals on our board is no touchdowns," Ihedigbo said. "We're going against a high-powered offense like this [and] when you do that, it means a lot."
Take away Houston's opening 69-yard drive and the Ravens held the Texans to 195 yards the rest of the game. In the final eight drives, the Texans never got close enough to sniff the end zone, coming only as close as the Ravens' 29-yard line.
Have these back-to-back impressive performances been a response to allowing a franchise-worst 49 points in Denver?
"We're not talking about Denver anymore," Ihedigbo said. "We're done talking about that."
Said defensive lineman Marcus Spears: "We knew that wasn't really us, man."
What really changed was shutting down the big plays. Manning completed nine passes of 23 yards or longer against Baltimore. The Ravens haven't given up a pass over 23 yards in the past 67 pass attempts. Texans quarterback Matt Schaub didn't throw a pass longer than 18 yards.
Some of this success goes to the Ravens' pass rush, which didn't give Schaub any time to look downfield. The Ravens can crash the edges with Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. They can collapse the middle with Haloti Ngata and Art Jones. Baltimore came from all angles, with seven players getting a hit on Schaub.
The bigger factor has been the improved coverage. Smith is getting his hands on passes, and Ihedigbo is a difference-maker. He finished with nine tackles, including two for loss, two passes defended (one on fourth down in the fourth quarter) and a hard hit on Schaub.
Ihedigbo was the best safety on the field on the day many were focused on Reed. "I don't know about that," Ihedigbo said.
The Ravens have needed the defense to play dominant because, as quarterback Joe Flacco said, the offense is going through growing pains. The Ravens are without their top tight end (Dennis Pitta is on injured reserve), No. 2 receiver (Jacoby Jones is out at least another couple of weeks with a knee injury) and their Pro Bowl running back (Ray Rice could be sidelined another week with a hip injury).
When Smith's interception return put the Ravens ahead 10-6 in the second half, the offense had 65 total yards. The Ravens finished with 236 yards.
"Give a lot of credit to those [defensive] guys," said Flacco, who was 16-of-24 for 171 yards. "They've played two weeks now where they haven't given up a touchdown. You're going to have a tough time losing when that happens."
The Ravens won't see Reed again in the regular season, and there are no more planned reunions with Lewis again this year. But the Ravens proved they're in good hands with newcomers like Smith, Ihedigbo and Dumervil.
If this defense needs inspiration, the players won't think back to the Ravens' glory days. They'll look back at the Denver debacle and see how far they've come.
"You don't ever want to have a performance like that," said Smith, who led the Ravens with 10 tackles. "Each week, we want to concentrate on getting better, and that's what we've been doing. And each week, we'll grow together, we'll gain more chemistry, we'll learn to trust each other more. I think we've done that the last two weeks, and we have to continue to do that."