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Stopping the run was an issue all season, but the Ravens did it when it mattered.
Before Jacoby Jones caught Joe Flacco's prayer, before Corey Graham picked off Peyton Manning a second time, before Justin Tucker ended the game with a long field goal, the Ravens needed a stop. Time was ticking down in the fourth quarter, and Peyton Manning was marching his Denver Broncos down the field. Another first down would have put the game away. To keep their hopes alive and get the ball back to Flacco, the battered but resilient Ravens defense needed to stop the run, something that they often struggled to do this season after setting the standard in that area for more than a decade.
There was no mystery in what the Broncos planned to do. Manning glanced across the line of scrimmage and saw Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, the 37-year-old with the big, black, bulky brace on his right arm. He saw linebacker Terrell Suggs, who is playing with one good arm and one good leg. He saw defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who has been mortalized by injuries for a second straight season. He saw safety Ed Reed, who whiffed on another critical tackle on a touchdown earlier in the fourth quarter. The Ravens defense is younger than it was a year ago, but its core has grayed. With age and injury slowing that quartet down, the Ravens ranked 20th against the run in the regular season, having allowed 122.8 rushing yards per game. The Broncos just needed 10 yards, and they had three plays to get them. Rookie running back Ronnie Hillman, who replaced the injured Knowshon Moreno, rushed up the middle, but Lewis met him in the hole, holding him to a 2-yard gain. On the next play, Hillman ran behind his left guard and was dragged down by Lewis and veteran nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu after a 1-yard gain. Facing 3rd-and-long, Manning handed it to Hillman again, and Kemoeatu dragged the speedy scatback down at the line of scrimmage. The Broncos punted with 1:15 left in regulation and the rest was history.
Credit must be given where it is due, but a much more challenging test awaits the Ravens next weekend, no matter who wins today's game between the Houston Texans and the New England Patriots. The Patriots and Texans finished seventh and eighth in rushing, respectively, and each team averaged 4.2 yards per carry during the regular season. The Patriots rely on a stable of young backs with different skill sets, led by second-year back Stevan Ridley. Meanwhile, the Texans rode to the AFC's divisional round on the back of do-it-all workhorse Arian Foster, one of the NFL's best runners. Those backfields pack a lot more punch than Denver's duo of Moreno and Hillman, who averaged 3.6 yards per carry Saturday.
Lewis and his old friends are running on emotion, adrenaline and Ben-Gay right now. They are going to keep kicking until their legs give out. And they showed Saturday, with their backs on the wall and the season on the line, they can dig deep and get a key stop when one is required, in the process giving us a glimpse into the past, to a time when Lewis was younger and no one dared run on the Ravens defense.
January 12, 2013