OWINGS MILLS – The Baltimore Ravens returned to their smash-mouth roots in more ways than one during their hard-hitting victory over the New Orleans Saints.
Not only did the Ravens’ running game get cranked back up, they went back to an aggressive style of defense by continually attacking Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Brees was sacked three times, pressured nine times, hit twice more and forced to fumble twice.
That resumed an old tradition for the Ravens, who became known for their unpredictable blitz packages under former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.
Against the Saints, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison used some overload schemes and used the speed of reserve linebackers Tavares Gooden and Dannell Ellerbe to increase the pressure on Brees.
"I think the thing that’s important to remember, for us, that is our personality," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "And we are going to be a pressure team. We don’t want to back of that. Whatever percentage that ends up being, it’s going to be closer to 50 percent than it’s going to be zero percent by far.
"I think our players feel strongly about that. Our coaches feel that way, too. Some games you get pushed in different directions, but we’re a pressure defense and we’re always going to be a pressure defense. That’s who we are."
Against the Houston Texans, the Ravens escaped with an overtime victory.
However, they squandered a 21-point lead during the second half as Texans quarterback Matt Schaub picked apart the secondary with plenty of time to throw against three and four-man rushes.
Last week, Mattison said that the Ravens were limited because of injuries to dime back Tom Zbikowski and having nose guards Brandon McKinney and Terrence Cody in the lineup.
"Yes, definitely more aggressive," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "We were able to get to him on some edges, even on a four-man rush we were good. We mixed it up between pressure and coverage, and that was a lot more our style."
And the Ravens had drawn criticism for their conservative schemes Sunday morning.
"I don’t know about mystique, but I know the coach and player personnel is not the same as they used to," former NFL coach Steve Mariucci said during an NFL Network appearance. "It’s like a BLT sandwich without the tomato. It’s not a BLT.
And former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin chimed in with a similar sentiment during the program.
"This defense still plays great defense for this league, but they have lost some of that ‘greatest ever’ defense," Irvin said. "When you hear guys like Ed Reed say, ‘Only the W matters,’ they understand that they are no longer the greatest ever, but they’re still winning."
The Ravens exploited some holes in the Saints’ pass protection.
"That’s the beauty of watching tape," said defensive end Cory Redding, who sealed the game with his first career interception off a Haloti Ngata deflection. "We saw some things that we felt could expose them in getting into the rush lanes and making guys move around.
"They’re big guys up front, but sometimes big guys don’t have very good feet, and if you can make them move, we can create mismatches and get them off balance and put pressure on the quarterback."
Outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Johnson both forced Brees to fumble.
The Ravens also brought blitz pressure from the secondary with safeties Ed Reed and Haruki Nakamura and cornerback Chris Carr.
"We definitely didn’t want Drew Brees to get comfortable," Suggs said. "Brees is one of the premier quarterbacks in this league.. You don’t want to turn the game into a seven-on-seven pass drill."
By shutting down the Saints’ running game right away and holding them to 27 rushing yards on 14 carries, the Ravens got them to abandon the run.
"We let them know that they couldn’t run the ball against us, and we made them one dimensional," Ngata said. "That allowed us to pin our ears back and try to get some pressure on him."
PLAYOFF SCENARIOS: The simplest and most likely way the Ravens clinch the playoffs this weekend is with a win or tie over the Cleveland Browns.
That guarantees them a playoff berth for the third year in a row.
There are four other ways the Ravens can make the playoffs, though, even if they manage to lose to the Browns.
The Ravens can also make the playoffs if the Kansas City Chiefs lose and the Jacksonville Jaguars lose or tie.
Or the Ravens can clinch if the Chiefs lose and the Indianapolis Colts lose or tie.
Plus, the Ravens will make the playoffs if the San Diego Chargers lose or tie and the Jacksonville Jaguars lose or tie, or if the Chargers lose or tie and the Colts lose or tie.
To win the AFC North title, the Ravens need to win both of their games and have the Pittsburgh Steelers lose one of their final two games. That’s unlikely to happen, though, because the Steelers are playing the Carolina Panthers and the Browns.
According to makeNFLplayoffs.com, the Ravens have a 97.3 percent chance of making the playoffs. Even if the Ravens lose both of their remaining games, they have an 89.3 percent chance of getting to the postseason.
RICE NOMINATED: Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice has been nominated for FedEx Ground NFL Player of the Week along with Indianapolis Colts running back Donald Brown and Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles.
Rice rushed for 153 yards and a touchdown, also catching five passes for 80 yards and a score.
DEPTH CHART CHANGED: Back in the starting lineup at right guard Sunday, Chris Chester is now listed atop the depth chart at right guard with Marshal Yanda listed first at right tackle.
Oniel Cousins is now listed as the backup right guard and right tackle with Tony Moll listed as the third-string right guard and right tackle.
"The No. 1 priority for me is to help the team," Chester said. "Whatever role they see me doing, I’m going to accept it and do it well. I’m going to do it to the best of my opportunity."
QUICK HIT: Former Pro Bowl runner Willis McGahee gained 53 yards on seven carries against the Saints in relief of Rice.
It’s the most he’s rushed for since a 64-yard game on Oct. 24 against the Buffalo Bills.
"I think he definitely could be a big weapon down the stretch," Harbaugh said. "He’s done that before for us. He’s always been down the stretch; he’s been a December and January guy, Willis has.
"He was hitting it up in there. He’s a powerful, big, strong guy, makes people miss. He’s kind of rounding into his January form, hopefully."