A theme for the Ravens coming into this season was having a defense built to close out games.
They had seen fourth-quarter leads evaporate in critical late-season games in recent years, and they brought in major reinforcements this offseason through the draft and free agency to address the issue. They also went to work instilling a mindset of finishing out games, and they showed their mettle Monday night by closing out the 23-16 victory over the Houston Texans.
The defense forced turnovers on its final two series of the game, capping off a day where the unit carried the team while the offense struggled to move the ball.
"That's just something that was important to us after last season ended, in Pittsburgh, and in other games over the years," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "The defense wants the game in their hands. If they don't score, we win – that's the mentality of those guys."
A recurring theme from Baltimore's defenders after the win Monday was that they wanted to be on the field with the game on the line. Sometimes defenses can falter down the stretch because they're worried about giving up a lead, but the Ravens didn't play that way in the game's final minutes.
"When you go through a game like that where it is up and down and you are flipping field position and it comes down to the defense getting a stop, we thrive on that stuff as a defense," said safety Tony Jefferson, who notched his first interception with the Ravens. "It just feels so good to accomplish it in a game, especially a tight one and a must win when we are in the race for the playoffs."
Baltimore's defense has been a ball-hawking unit throughout the season and they continued that trend against Houston. They came into the game with a league-leading 16 interceptions, and added another pair of interceptions and a forced fumble.
Veteran leader Terrell Suggs came up with the fumble on a strip-sack with 4 minutes, 56 seconds left in the game and the Ravens clinging to a four-point lead. The turnover halted a Texans drive just as they entered Ravens' territory and set up Justin Tucker's third field goal of the night.
"If the game is on the line, you've got to be comfortable when your defense is out there," Suggs said. "It feels good."
After Tucker's field goal, the Ravens sealed the game on the ensuing possession when veteran defensive back Anthony Levine notched the first interception of his career. The six-year veteran perfectly read the pass from quarterback Tom Savage and brought it in to put the game away.
"I'm telling you, I can't describe it," Levine said. "When I come on the field, they expect me to make my plays and I expect to make plays. That's what I'm here to do."
The strong finish continued an impressive season for Baltimore's defense. The unit already has three shutouts this year, the most since they had four during their historic Super Bowl 2000 season, and they also have their sights set on becoming one of the best teams ever at forcing turnovers.
"We have a goal," Jefferson said. "Our mindset is to take the ball away and have the offense protect the ball. We did that, and I think that's an old saying – 'If you win the turnover battle, you usually win the game.' We have to continue to do that."
As the Ravens celebrated the performance that moved them to 6-5 on the season and kept them in command of their playoff lives, Suggs was also quick to remind his teammates that there is still work to do. He consistently points out small miscues after impressive performances, and the defensive leader is focused on preventing his team from getting complacent as they make a playoff push over the next five games.
"We didn't play perfect tonight," he said. "As this defense, we're striving for perfection."
Check out the best photos from M&T Bank Stadium as the Ravens host the Texans on Monday Night Football.