After allowing more than 180 rushing yards in three straight games, including a franchise-worst 227 yards in a Week 6 win over the Dallas Cowboys, the last place the Ravens defenders wanted to be during their bye week was a dark film room.
"I was just thinking, 'Get away. Get away as far as possible,' " defensive end Arthur Jones remembered, not so fondly, this week. "I want to clear my mind, just really getting some rest and getting away from it a little bit. I started watching a little film at the end of the bye week. Guys did that and came back fresh and ready to fight. And it shows."
The Ravens have tightened up against the run since sharpening their focus and making necessary adjustments during their Week 8 bye, though they are not to be confused with the dominant bunch who practically begged opponents to run the ball for the better part of a decade.
Their improved run defense will be tested Sunday in the AFC championship game. The New England Patriots, who rode a shotgun spread offense to the playoffs in previous years, enter the title game rematch with a stable of running backs and the NFL's seventh-ranked rushing offense.
Led by second-year back Stevan Ridley, who paced the team with 1,263 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in the regular season, New England handed the ball off more than it had in any season since 2004 — the last time the Patriots won the Super Bowl. In that season, Corey Dillon rushed for a franchise-record 1,635 yards on 345 carries.
In the following years, as they started to ask Tom Brady to throw the ball all over the field and usually finished outside the top 10 in rushing, the Patriots relied on pedestrian running backs like Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris and BenJarvus Green-Ellis to keep defenses honest.
That's no longer the case, as Ridley is a dynamic runner between the tackles, and situational backs Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden each have a unique skill set. The Patriots ran the ball an AFC-leading 523 times during the regular season, which was 43.9 percent of their offensive plays.
In their 41-28 win over the Houston Texans in the divisional round last weekend, the Patriots rushed for 122 yards — at 5.1 yards per carry — and Ridley and Vereen each ran for a touchdown.
"They have very special running backs. Ridley, I really like the guy. He is explosive and can make things happen," Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said. "[Woodhead] is in there, showing that he can run, showing that he can catch out of the backfield. And then now you have a guy coming out, [Vereen], he is explosive, man. … We have to know where those guys are at all times."
Keeping tabs on opposing running backs has always been the top priority for the Ravens defense, but during that rough stretch in October, perhaps the only person who could consistently track one was defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who used a laser pointer in the film room.
Pees, who at one point admitted that the state of his defense made him sick, took stock of the unit during the bye week while his players were taking a break. He decided that he was asking players to do things with which they were unfamiliar, and resolved to put them in more comfortable situations. He also tweaked technique and got back to the basics.
"We didn't change the whole structure of the defense, but we have changed some techniques and some things that those guys do that may have helped us," Pees said.
As linebacker Paul Kruger put it: "It was putting the right guys in the right places and just playing good football."
The defense ranked 30th against the run at the start of November, having allowed 142.9 yards per game. But since then, the Ravens have been respectable, setting the edge and funneling running backs into the middle of the defense while allowing an average of 112.9 yards per game.
"I would credit our front — the front five guys really, the defensive line, the outside linebackers," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "They're just playing fundamentally so much better than we did early. … They're playing good, solid football up front. They're controlling more blocks than they're not controlling. That's the key."
They have had setbacks, like the regular-season losses to the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos. But they have gotten stops when they are needed, none bigger than their three in the fourth quarter in the AFC divisional round, setting the stage for Joe Flacco's heroics with a Denver three-and-out.
A first down would have sealed a win for the Broncos, but the Ravens, down a touchdown at the time, held them to 3 yards on three straight runs and continued to play well through the end of the 38-35 win.
"I mean, the big thing about the Ravens is they play good when they've got to play good," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "When they've got to make plays, they make plays."
The Ravens will need to make more of them Sunday to get to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots will likely lean on their up-tempo, no-huddle offense against a Ravens defense that has played more than nine quarters of football the past two weeks. When the Patriots speed things up, shifty backs Woodhead and Vereen are capable of making plays in the run game and as receiving threats.
But if the Ravens can limit the damage done on the ground, they might be in good shape. In each of their four losses this season, the Patriots were held under 100 rushing yards.
The Ravens are confident they can make it five-for-five. That's because now, when they spend time in the film room with Pees and his laser pointer, there is a lot more to feel good about.
"We have so much going right now. Our guys are fighting. We have so much heart," Jones said. "If we take care of business — our assignment, our alignment, our technique — I feel like we can't be beat."
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