BALTIMORE, Md. -- Turns out Week 3 was a Throwback Sunday in what is shaping up as a Throwback Season in Baltimore. The Ravens are back to their old-school ways of winning with defense and special teams, and it was only fitting that they went all retro-style on the Houston Texans on the very day that future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis was inducted into the team's Ring of Honor and Ed Reed returned wearing enemy colors.
We've seen this type of defensive-led football in Baltimore plenty of times before. When Lewis and Reed were in their prime, there were many seasons when the Ravens had to get it done first and foremost on defense, and hope for just enough offense to not hurt the cause. That familiar Baltimore blueprint was back in Sunday's 30-9 thrashing of the Texans, a game that might set the tone for the first Ravens season in history without either Lewis or Reed in the lineup.
The Ravens had just four first downs and 65 yards of offense at halftime, but they also had what proved to be an insurmountable 17-9 lead, thanks to a 37-yard interception return for a touchdown by inside linebacker Daryl Smith -- Lewis' veteran replacement -- and an 82-yard punt return touchdown by receiver Tandon Doss. Both touchdowns came within a six-play span late in the second quarter, and blew open a tight, field-goal-fest that Houston had led 6-3.
It was the first interception return for a touchdown of Smith's 10-year NFL career, and it underlined just how far, how fast this new-look Ravens defense is progressing. Humiliated in the NFL's high-profile season-opening game in Denver on Sept. 5, when Peyton Manning threw seven touchdown passes and the Ravens surrendered a franchise-worst 49 points to the Broncos, Baltimore has quickly rebounded on defense.
In back-to-back home wins over Cleveland and Houston, the Ravens have allowed five field goals and zero touchdowns, winning 14-6 over the Browns and 30-9 over the Texans. Not bad for a defense that includes seven new starters, and lost a bevy of talent from its Super Bowl champion roster. It's the first time Baltimore hasn't allowed a touchdown in back-to-back games since the first two weeks of the 2010 season.
"We feel like we can be a great defense,'' Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "We're still working toward that. We talked about this last night. We do feel like we're as far along as we can possibly be right now with this group.''
The Ravens offense led the way to the Super Bowl last season, but Baltimore is lacking weapons at the moment, with Anquan Boldin traded to San Francisco, tight end Dennis Pitta injuring a hip early in training camp, No. 2 receiver Jacoby Jones out with a knee injury and running back Ray Rice missing his first game since 2008 with a hip flexor issue. But with Smith and Doss turning in game-changing plays, Baltimore was able to put 30 points on the scoreboard, despite logging just one offensive touchdown, a 1-yard Bernard Pierce run in the third quarter.
"It's 14 points, which is huge,'' Harbaugh said of the interception and punt return scores. "Any time you're able to score 14 points -- especially in quick fashion like that -- it's a tremendous turning point. Two huge plays by the defense and special teams.''
The Ravens defense was best when it was tested the most on Sunday. The Texans entered play a perfect 7-of-7 on scoring touchdowns on red-zone trips, but Baltimore held Houston to just two field goals on its two red-zone visits. The Texans were just 3-of-13 on third and fourth down, including 1-of-4 in the second half.
The Texans drove to the Baltimore 9 and 11 yard lines on their first and third possessions of the game, but both times the Ravens buckled down and forced short Randy Bullock field goals of 27 and 29 yards. Baltimore's offense had terrible field position early on, and didn't make a first down until early in the second quarter. But the game remained well within reach thanks to the Ravens defense.
"That's huge,'' said Smith, who had a game-high 10 tackles, to go with his first career pick-six.
"Six points versus 14, we'll take that all day. We don't ever want to give up points as a defense, but you would rather give up the field goal every day of the week. It was huge. It didn't let things get out of hand for us, and kept us in the game.''
The Texans never once dented Baltimore's defense for a big play, with Matt Schaub's longest completion going for 18 yards, and Houston's longest rushing gain being 10-yard runs by Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Juxtapose that with the debacle in Denver, when Manning torched the Ravens new defense for nine passes of at least 23 yards. Schaub's 25 completions on 35 attempts went for just 194 yards, a modest 4.5 yards per pass play. Houston (2-1) had scored 30-plus points in beating San Diego and Tennessee, but the Ravens never let the Texans get much offensive rhythm built.
Schaub was sacked three times, but pressured consistently, with seven different Ravens getting credit for a quarterback hit. Linebacker Terrell Suggs had a sack, and both defensive linemen Haloti Ngata and Arthur Jones dumped Schaub once each. In the secondary, safety James Ihedigbo did his best Reed imitation, registering nine tackles, including two for a loss, with two passes defensed, including a key fourth-down deflection in the fourth quarter.
Add in the significant contributions in pass coverage of rookie safety Matt Elam and third-year cornerback Jimmy Smith, and it's clear Baltimore's defense has come together quickly in the past two weeks. The Ravens defense lost the likes of Lewis and Reed, and linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, but its noticeably younger, faster and more athletic than any defense of recent Baltimore vintage.
"You go back to Denver, and you don't ever want to have a performance like that,'' Smith said. "Each week we want to concentrate on getting better, and that's what we've been doing. Each week, we'll grow together, we'll gain more chemistry, we'll learn to trust each other more. And I think we've done that the last two weeks. We just have to continue to do that.''
The Ravens offense remains a work in progress. Flacco threw for only 171 yards on 16-of-24 passing, without a touchdown or an interception, and Pierce managed just 65 yards on 24 hard carries (2.7 average) in place of Rice. Receiver Torrey Smith had a strong game, with a team-high five catches for 92 yards, including a 48-yard bomb down the left sideline in the third quarter, setting up Baltimore's lone touchdown drive.
When Rice is healthy again, and Jones returns, the Ravens offense should be able to start pulling a little more of its own weight. But until then, it's defense that carries the day in Baltimore. Again. Just like old times. Even without Lewis or Reed in purple.
"Our defense, man, it didn't break,'' Flacco said. "And then they just got after it the whole rest of the day. Give a lot of credit to those guys. They've played two weeks now where they haven't given up a touchdown. That's pretty good. You're going to have a tough time losing when that happens.''