Having just played (and won) their first playoff game in franchise history, the Texans are in uncharted territory. Next up is a tough test against a Ravens team that has been there and done that many times before. But unlike previous seasons, Baltimore begins its Super Bowl quest from home — a place where it went a perfect 8-0 in the regular season. The Texans will have to rely on the running game if they want to overcome that stout Ravens defense.
Nothing demoralizes a defense more than an effective running game, and the Texans definitely have one. The one-two punch of Arian Foster and Ben Tate combined for 2,166 rushing yards during the regular season, averaging 153 per game (second in the NFL). Foster is an explosive player, and we saw just how good he can be in Houston’s wild-card win over Cincinnati (153 yards and two touchdowns, including one that came on a 42-yard run).
Not only will a strong rushing attack help break down the Ravens defense, but it will also take pressure off rookie quarterback T.J. Yates, who did just enough to win last week. However, yards will be hard to come by against Baltimore’s front seven — a unit that was tops in the AFC with only 92.6 rushing yards allowed per game. The last time these teams met in Week 6, Foster finished with just 49 yards.
If the Texans can’t run the ball, Yates will be in for a tough day (the Ravens have forced 21 turnovers in their last seven postseason games). The important thing for Houston is to stick with the run, even if the early returns aren’t great. Foster has the talent to wear down defenders and if he can break through, the Texans will gain a major advantage.
2. Take away a dimension
While Houston has a very capable running back, Baltimore isn’t lacking in that department either. Ray Rice was second in the league in rushing yards and finished first in total yards — but as he goes, so do the Ravens. In Baltimore’s four losses this season, Rice averaged just nine carries for 38.8 yards, and during wins he had over 21 carries for 100.8 yards. In all of those losing situations, the Ravens found themselves trailing by nine points or more and had to abandon the run in order to play catchup.
That’s significant for the Texans. The last thing Baltimore wants is the disappearance of the running game, because Joe Flacco has been up and down this season. Running the ball against a Wade Phillips’ D is no easy task either. In his last eight playoff games as head coach or defensive coordinator, Phillips-led teams have held the opposition to just 81 rushing yards per game (the Bengals had only 76 last week).
If the Texans can put points on the board early in the ballgame (they were 10th overall with 23.8 points per game in the regular season) they can force the Ravens to rely on their inconsistent passing game.
3. Don’t give an inch
What Wade Phillips has been able to do with the Texans defense is nothing short of remarkable. The unit had long been the laughingstock of the NFL, but that’s no longer the case. Houston finished the year ranked second overall in total defense (third against the run, fourth against the pass) and allowed just 17.4 points per game.
But the Texans went through a slump during the final three games of the regular season, and the defensive numbers weren’t pretty: 70 points allowed, 997 total yards, and only two turnovers over that span. However, in their opening round playoff matchup against Cincinnati, Houston’s D reverted back to midseason form. The Texans had three interceptions (and four turnovers total), a season-high four sacks, a defensive touchdown (thanks to J.J. Watt) and allowed just 10 points, including none in the second half.
You know the Ravens D will be ready to play (in Week 6 Baltimore held Houston scoreless in the final 21 minutes), so the Texans need their defense to play more like it did Saturday and less like it did at the end of the regular season. If that happens, Gary Kubiak and company could be celebrating the franchise’s second playoff win.