The Baltimore Ravens' new-look defense is starting to come together after a forgettable Week 1 performance. The most recent performance, in fact, probably left a pair of former contributors impressed.
The Ravens look to keep the Buffalo Bills out of the end zone this Sunday when the club's clash at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Following their second Super Bowl championship in 13 years last season, the Ravens saw a number of exits from a defense that defined the club over the previous decade. Two of the bigger names returned to Baltimore this past weekend, when safety Ed Reed's Houston Texans came to town on a day that retired linebacker Ray Lewis was inducted into the Ravens' Ring of Honor.
Baltimore fell behind early on a pair of Houston field goals, but exploded for 17 straight points in the second quarter and did not allow a touchdown to roll to a 30-9 victory over the previously-unbeaten Texans.
The momentum swing in the game came without the offense. Linebacker Daryl Smith, one of the new faces on defense, picked off a pass and raced 37 yards for a score and Tandon Doss returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown less than two minutes later.
"Two huge plays by the defense and the special teams," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said.
The Ravens were coming off a 14-6 win over Cleveland and have not allowed a touchdown in back-to-back wins since giving up seven in a season-opening 49-27 loss in Denver.
The defense played shut down in the second half as well, giving up just 102 yards to the Texans after halftime.
"You go back to Denver -- you don't ever want to have a performance like that," said Smith. "So, each week, we're going to concentrate on getting better. ... And 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, and we just have to continue to do that."
Having rebounded from the rough Week 1 loss, Baltimore aims for its fifth straight 3-1 start under Harbaugh and takes on a Buffalo club that has played in three straight tightly-contested contests.
The Bills split their first two games of the season, both at home. They lost 23-21 to New England in Week 1 before a 24-23 victory over Carolina.
Buffalo hit the road for the first time this past Sunday and was in its game against the New York Jets late before giving up a long score in the fourth quarter of a 27-20 loss.
Rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel hit tight end Scott Chandler for a 33-yard score with 10:39 left in the fourth quarter and Manuel's completion to wideout Stevie Johnson on the two-point conversion tied the game at 20-20.
The Jets, who committed a team-record 20 penalties in the game, were able to respond just over a minute later as their rookie signal-caller Geno Smith connected on a 69-yard scoring pass to Santonio Holmes.
"Every loss feels like a missed opportunity," said Johnson. "No matter what happened on the other side of the ball, each team is out there fighting. There is never a perfect game. But it kind of feels unreal right now after fighting back and then them coming back and getting the touchdown. We just have to go back to work."
Manuel threw for 243 yards, but was sacked eight times on the day and the Bills had to settle for four field goals from Dan Carpenter before the Chandler touchdown.
"When they're bringing eight people at you it gets tough," said Manuel. "Moving forward we'll be more prepared for it."
Sunday will mark the sixth meeting between the Bills and Ravens, who lead the series 3-2.
Baltimore picked up a 37-34 overtime victory in the most recent encounter on Oct. 24, 2010 at home.
The Bills have won the only previous meeting in Buffalo, a 19-14 triumph on Oct. 21, 2007.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Ravens running back Ray Rice (hip) missed a game for the first time since his 2008 rookie season when he did not suit up against the Texans, though Harbaugh said on Monday that both he and defensive end Chris Canty (thigh) were close to playing.
Minus Rice, Bernard Pierce ran for 65 yards on 24 carries with a score. He will likely continue to get work even if Rice can play this weekend, but it should be quarterback Joe Flacco who has the big game versus the Bills.
Buffalo's secondary is besieged by injuries right now to all three of its top corners. Stephon Gilmore and Ron Brooks are sidelined due to wrist and foot issues, respectively, while Leodis McKelvin suffered a leg injury in the first quarter versus the Jets.
Minus McKelvin, head coach Doug Marrone moved Aaron Williams from free safety to corner with Jim Leonhard shifting to his spot.
The Jets took full advantage, logging four plays of 40 yards or more, including TD passes of 51 and 69 yards that saw third-year man Justin Rogers burnt on both plays.
Marrone didn't single Rogers out after the game, saying it was the whole secondary that struggled.
"Everybody's going after our secondary and we just have to do a good job," said the Bills coach. "We're trying to change things up for them coverage-wise and pressure and do that to try to keep the quarterback thinking. But hey, when they bring the pressure, block them all up. They went one-on-one and it's just a point of we didn't make those plays."
Said Rogers of moving on from the performance, "Yeah, I think I've been able to for the most part. You know it was unfortunate and I was hard on myself but the thing about this game is you have to move on."
Overall, the Bills rank 28th in total defense at 417.3 yards allowed per game.
Should McKelvin be unable to suit up, Ravens long threat Torrey Smith could have a monster day. He is averaging 16.8 yards per reception.
Flacco threw for 250 yards with three touchdown passes and no interceptions for a 111 passer rating in his only previous meeting with the Bills. He could be thin behind him at running back after Pierce's backup, Shaun Draughn, suffered a high ankle sprain versus the Texans.
"It will be there. We can't force anything," Flacco said of the long ball. "We still have to take chances. It's not like they're high percentage all the time. They're either going to be completed, and it's going to be a big play, and that's the risk you take. If not, you're sitting there at 2nd-and-10 or whatever it may be. I think, overall, we just have to click a little bit more on everything we're doing."
Also for Baltimore, backup nose tackle Terrence Cody sustained a sprained knee last weekend and Harbaugh said it would be a stretch to get him back for this game.
After getting sacked eight time last weekend, Manual may be in for another long day against an improving Ravens defense. Linebacker Terrell Suggs is looking to record a sack for a fourth straight game and has four in four career meetings with the Bills.
Smith, meanwhile, leads the club with 25 tackles to go along with 1 1/2 sacks.
"Daryl has just done a great job, and for him to come up (with big plays), it's not just the interception. He's played really well consistently from the beginning," Harbaugh said of his linebacker.
The Bills defense is being led by Mario Williams' 4 1/2 sacks and 27 tackles by Kiko Alonso, who is just the second rookie linebacker in team history to record an interception in back-to-back games.
Buffalo running back C.J. Spiller had nine yards on 10 carries versus the Jets before suffering a thigh injury, but expects to play this weekend.
"It's sore, but it shouldn't be anything that will keep me out this week," Spiller said on Monday. "I should be feeling better day-by-day. Just taking it slow, just a little sore right now."
The Bills do have a capable backup in Fred Jackson, who ran for 72 yards on seven carries last weekend, though 59 came on one play.
The Ravens seemed lost in the woods following a Week 1 loss and slow start the following weekend versus Cleveland, but have survived thus far because of their defense.
Baltimore needs more out of the highly-paid Flacco and should get it this weekend against an injury-ravaged Bills secondary despite the lack of playmakers in the receiving game, a unit complicated by an injured Rice. His return will allow Flacco to look deep towards Smith and Marlon Brown while having Rice to check down to.
Buffalo has managed to be in each game it has played so far, but will get all it can handle against a confident Ravens defense.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Ravens 27, Bills 17