Fresh off a convincing 31-10 victory in their first ever playoff game over the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Wildcard Round last Saturday, the Houston Texans are putting their NFL-best 100% postseason record on the line this Sunday as they take on the Ravens in M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore. Considered underdogs by most football pundits coming into the game, the Texans will need to have a lot of crucial match-ups go their way for them to stand any chance of pulling an upset against the AFC North champs. One of them is to establish their signature ground attack against the opposition’s stingy run defense.
This is a match-up that defines strength versus strength. The Texans running game has always been the focal point of their offense this season, even before starting QB Matt Schaub went down with a season-ending foot injury in Tampa Bay. As rookie T.J. Yates took over under center, Houston had to rely on the combination of RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate even more. And the duo did not disappoint, averaging more than 120 yards-per-game since Schaub’s injury. But it was not all Foster and Tate who got the job done. The success of the zone-blocking scheme of the Texans’ stretch runs require the offensive line to play their A game on every play. Wade Smith, Mike Brisiel, Chris Myers, Duane Brown and Eric Winston are not a physically top-notch group that are essential to those power, up-the-middle runs; but they sure don’t lack the technique and finesse that set the table for the stretch runs. These guys rarely missed their assignments and has been recognized as one of the league’s best this season; Duane Brown was voted to the All-Pro second team. With a combination of timely blocking from the line and great vision from the backs, the Texans finished the season second in the league in rushing, just behind Tim Tebow’s option offense in Denver. And picking up right where they left off, Houston stuck to their run-heavy offense in the wildcard round, with Foster torching the Bengals defense for 153 yards and 2 TDs.
As it has been the case in years past, the Ravens’ success this season is largely based on their stingy defense. They stood close at the top of all defense statistics leaderboard, finishing the season 3rd in the NFL in total defense, 2nd in run defense, and 4th in pass defense. Under the leadership of veteran LB Ray Lewis, the Ravens run defense had done a terrific job throughout the season in nullifying the ground game of their opposition. Other than Lewis, the Ravens defense boast playmakers all over the field. DT Haloti Ngata can provide penetration up the middle with his otherworldly physical strength; Terrell Suggs is a shut-down rush linebacker. Ed Reed plays an aggressive safety who is capable of making tackles for loss in the backfield thanks to his incredible reads on running plays. All of them contributed a huge part to an exceptional 92.6 rushing yards allowed per game by this defense.
The Ravens beat the Texans 29-14 in Week 6 of the regular season, thanks in large part to winning this ground match-up as they limited the Texans to just 93 yards on 25 carries. However, keep in mind that the Ravens were able to stuff the box in that game as the Texans’ best weapon downfield Andre Johnson missed the game due to a hamstring injury. This weekend, Johnson is back in full force. His versatility will force the Ravens to take into account the play-action game around No.80, thus loosening up the defense and leading to more holes for Foster and Tate to exploit. If they can, the Texans are capable of pulling an upset.