Ravens trust each other on defense

One breakdown wasn't enough to derail the Ravens, who have developed a trust factor on defense, John Clayton writes.

Updated: December 10, 2006, 11:03 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- In the second quarter against a Baltimore Ravens defense that usually says "nevermore" to running plays, Larry Johnson made one of his patented jump cuts and rumbled 47 yards. Linebacker Terrell Suggs tacked on 15 more yards with a late hit out of bounds and the Chiefs were at the Ravens' 27.

"Calm down, calm down," Ravens safety Ed Reed remembered Ravens defenders saying in the huddle after that play. "He's not in the end zone. They aren't in the end zone."

One slight breakdown -- linebacker Bart Scott thought it was his mistake -- allowed Johnson to run free for 47 yards. The key word here is trust. Ravens defenders trust each other. Instead of fraying, they came together as they have all season. Michael Bennett, Johnson's backup, was stuffed for back-to-back 1-yard gains. On third down, Reed intercepted a pass intended for Samie Parker. End of threat. End of Chiefs in a 20-10 Ravens victory Sunday that never seemed to be in question.

"That's the beauty of our defense -- trust the next man next to you," Baltimore middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "If it's clicking the way it's clicking, it's hard to move the ball on us running like that."

Johnson finished with a hard-fought 120 yards on 23 carries, but a dozen carries went for two yards or less. The beauty of the Ravens' defense is how 11 defenders swarm to make stops. Johnson creates the ultimate challenge. He has one of the best jump cuts in the league, a move he has been perfecting since he was 6 years old. Blockers set up for Johnson to make a jump cut to one side, drawing defenders, and then he cuts the run the other way.

"He just commits to the hole and tries to make you commit," Scott said. "As a defense, you have to be real good at telling the backside guys, 'We'll handle the front side,' and trust we will do that. On the backside, he's coming to you."

Scott apparently got a little confused about his role on the 47-yard run, but he and the rest of defense have made so many great stops this season that the trust wasn't broken. The Ravens (10-3) entered Week 14 as the league's No. 1 defense. Opponents average only 80.3 yards a game and 3.3 yards a carry against them. Ravens defenders immediately forgot about the gain of 47 and concentrated on holding Johnson to 73 yards on his other 21 carries.

"We are playing with so much togetherness," Ray Lewis said. "The beauty of our defense is if there is one breakdown by one person, you are going to see it. We trust each other too much. The key to stopping Johnson was just hitting him. We want him to play a physical game."

Johnson was undoubtedly prepared for the physical pounding. He has 333 rushes for 1,432 yards and is destined to go over 400 carries this season. The Ravens' game plan was to stop Johnson first and then take away the Chiefs' next most dangerous threat -- Trent Green to tight end Tony Gonzalez. Until Dante Hall caught a face-saving but meaningless touchdown with 1:20 left, the Chiefs were held to three points. Gonzalez finished with only three catches for 31 yards.

"The inside runs were working," Johnson said. "After a while, I figured out what they were trying to do. Ray Lewis and I were playing hide-and-go-seek with each other, so I knew it was him. I had to fool him and not the whole defense. When we started to get those big yards, that's what it was, I was trying to fool him a little bit."

Fool the Ravens once, good for you. Fool them twice, forget about it. They won't be fooled. They start six defenders who have been to the Pro Bowl and two more -- Scott and Suggs -- who will probably go this season. They are smart. They are fast. They hit hard.

Sunday was a challenge for the Ravens. The Chiefs hadn't lost at home in December in 18 games. Kansas City (7-6) is a desperate team fighting for wild-card positioning. Because of their home success, oddsmakers made the Chiefs a three-point favorite.

To make matters worse, the wind was a major factor, blowing 13 mph out of the south with gusts to 25 mph. The problem in Arrowhead Stadium is the location of the wind. There was a crosswind blowing from the Ravens' bench to the other side of the field to the Chiefs' sideline, making this a thinking man's game on defense and not a scoring type of game on offense.

The Ravens' secondary knew it was going to be hard for Green to throw certain sideline patterns against the wind. At certain spots on the field, a pass might drop. Reed, one of the league's best ball-hawking safeties, intercepted Green twice. As the game progressed, the Ravens sensed Chiefs coaches were fearful of the Ravens' pass rush, so KC had Green try a quicker snap count and unload passes quickly.

After a while, the Ravens got a feel for Green's cadence and dropback. They pounded him for five sacks and numerous pressures. Once, Suggs timed a rush perfectly and knocked the ball from Green's hands and recovered it.

"I just kind of got into his rhythm," Suggs said. "If you can get into the quarterback's rhythm of a game, you can be a pretty deadly pass rusher. I knew the ball was coming on one, so I just got off on the [snap of the] ball and stripped it."

Green was almost completely shut down in the first half. He completed only 5 of 13 first-half passes for 37 yards. He was sacked three times, fumbled twice and threw an interception. Offensively, the Ravens managed two field goals and held a 6-0 lead, which looked insurmountable the way the Ravens were stuffing the Chiefs.

"Their three down defensive linemen are solid guys that can stuff the run and penetrate the gaps," Green said. "The addition of Trevor Pryce, who we faced twice a year when he played for Denver, has added a lot to that defense. Their secondary has a couple of Pro Bowlers. They're going to have a bunch of Pro Bowlers."

Green's first-half quarterback rating was 13.1, not as gross as Rex Grossman's last week but pretty gross. It set up a scenario in which the Ravens knew one big play would win the game. They got it midway through the second quarter, and it's a tribute to why the trade for Steve McNair has propelled the Ravens to the top of the AFC North.

With the Ravens leading 6-0 in the third quarter, Ravens coaches and McNair noticed the Chiefs secondary was sitting on certain routes; for example, they noticed a safety would try to jump normal curl routes. Knowing this, the Ravens sent Mark Clayton to the middle of the field on a curl, hoping safety Greg Wesley would jump it. He did, so Clayton beat him with a double move and was open for an 87-yard touchdown pass, the longest of McNair's career.

"They just saw that play before," Clayton said. "We had run a couple of curls previous to that play. It was the same move, the same depth, and then I took off."

Green marched back for a field goal drive to cut the lead to 13-3, but McNair iced the game with a 16-play, 86-yard drive that consumed 9:13 of the fourth quarter. Jamal Lewis hit the middle for a 1-yard touchdown to open a 20-3 lead.

"It doesn't get any better than having leads like that," Ray Lewis said. "When you have leads like that, you can pin your ears back. That's championship football."

Thanks to the addition of McNair, the trust that holds the defense together carries over to Baltimore's offense. McNair is managing the game well and keeping his offense calm in tough environments. As Baltimore tight end Todd Heap says, McNair might not be the fastest quarterback or have the strongest arm, but he's a winner. He has managed the Ravens to a two-game division lead, and the defense is gaining momentum as Baltimore points to the playoffs.

"The beauty of our defense is you never know who's going to come up with a play," Ray Lewis said. "And now that Ed Reed, who is a ball hawk, is making some plays, it's going to be trouble for everyone."

Not the kind of trouble the Chiefs needed Sunday.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer