OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Facing the Baltimore Ravens’ defense is like playing chess against a grandmaster. You might fare well for a while, but eventually you’re going to make a costly mistake.
Just ask the Miami Dolphins. Or the Tennessee Titans.
The Ravens (13-5) forced five turnovers against Miami in their playoff opener and cruised to a 27-9 victory. Top-seeded Tennessee pierced Baltimore’s defense for 391 yards last week, yet three turnovers inside the 20-yard line doomed the Titans to a 13-10 defeat.
“We’ll give you a little bit,” Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said, “but we’re not going to give you everything you’re looking for.”
Those two playoff performances were merely an extension of the regular season, when Baltimore recorded an NFL-best 34 takeaways to finish with a plus-13 turnover differential. The Ravens’ ability to steal the football has not gone unnoticed by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who intend to be particularly careful Sunday in the AFC championship game.
“They are very opportunistic. If the ball is in the air where some DBs might drop it, they don’t seem to drop very many. The linebackers as well,” Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “You have to be aware of all of them.”
Especially Ed Reed, who led the league with nine interceptions before adding two more against the Dolphins. He returned the first pickoff in Miami for a touchdown, but Roethlisberger was more impressed by Reed’s second interception.
“He’s in cover-2 safety to the right side, and he picks off an under route to the left,” the quarterback said. “He is always all over the field. He’s a ball hawk.”
The Ravens are also efficient at making the opposition put the ball on the ground. Just before halftime in Tennessee last week, LenDale White ran for 5 yards and a first down at the Baltimore 17 before losing the ball on a hit by Jarret Johnson.
Then, with the game tied in the fourth quarter, strong safety Jim Leonhard and linebacker Bart Scott clubbed Alge Crumpler at the end of a 6-yard gain, forcing a fumble that Baltimore recovered at the 1.
“Most of the times when we do give up (a play), one thing we take pride in is just getting the hit after the ball is thrown,” Lewis said. “When the ball is thrown or handed off, everybody finds the football. There’s where I believe a lot of the turnovers are coming from. Everybody is always around the ball. Everybody is always going for it, stripping for it.”
Baltimore’s ability to force turnovers is no accident. Honing the technique is as much a part of practice as stretching or hitting a blocking dummy.
“We have a lot of drills. All of those drills are training camp drills. Some of them carry over through the season,” coach John Harbaugh said. “Takeaways and giveaways are an emphasis in every practice. Our guys know how important it is.”
To make his defense better at forcing turnovers, Harbaugh will match the unit against Baltimore’s offense in practice. That also makes quarterback Joe Flacco more aware of protecting the ball.
A positive turnover differential is the product of both units, and the Ravens’ offense has done its part. Baltimore has committed one turnover in two postseason games – a fumble by running back Le’Ron McClain – but that was offset by the team’s eight takeaways.
If Flacco and the Ravens can protect the ball, and if Baltimore’s defense can force Roethlisberger into throwing it into their hands, then Baltimore just might pull off an upset. But Roethlisberger was intercepted only once in two games against the Ravens this season, a big reason why Pittsburgh won both times.
“Ben is a quarterback who is very cautious with what he does out there,” Reed said. “He’s always aware of the situation, where guys are at. So it’s going to be a challenge. It always is against these guys.”
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