Ray Rice and the running game broke out last week in Chicago.
The Ravens went with a ground-and-pound approach on a windy day and a muddy field, and the offense finished with a season-best 174 rushing yards. The improved performance was a big step forward in a year where running the ball has been a challenge, and the Ravens now hope to build off that effort against the New York Jets.
But that won't be an easy task against the NFL's top-ranked run defense, and Jets Head Coach Rex Ryan even dared the Ravens to try to run the ball on his team.
"We're No. 1 in the league versus the run – that's no surprise," Ryan said. "We're No. 1 in the league in rushing average, too, so come in and run it at us if you want."
New York's run defense is led by an impressive front seven, headlined by defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon Harrison and Sheldon Richardson. They have dominated offensive lines all season and held opponents to just 73.2 rushing yards per game.
"They're some big, powerful guys, who aren't just big and powerful, but they can also move," Rice said. "That's what poses a challenge, is that you have to get movement to even gain a yard. You can't let them feast in one position. We've got our work cut out for us."
Rice compared the Jets' [apostrophe] front to some of the defenses the Ravens see routinely in the AFC North. Games against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Cleveland are known for their battles in the trenches, and Rice expects a similar kind of grind Sunday.
"What they've built up there is what we're used to seeing," he said. "They have a Cleveland, Pittsburgh kind of front. And the first thing they do in their front is say, 'Stop the run.' The Jets, quite frankly, have been doing a pretty good job at it. It's going to be a heck of a challenge."
A dominant defensive front has been the trademark of the Jets since Ryan took over in 2008. Ryan coached the Ravens defensive line for six years, including the 2000 Super Bowl team. He was the Baltimore defensive coordinator from 2005-2008.
"That's a tradition with Rex," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "He's had those over the years from time to time. Rex is a very good coach, a very good defensive coach, and a very good front coach."
Part of Ryan's reputation is his tendency to dial up exotic blitz packages. Those blitzes are designed to stop the run and get after quarterbacks, and they create problems for offensive lines to know exactly who to block.
"They give you all kinds of problems," Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "They have very, very good personnel up front. They're big, they're physical, and they hit and run with the best of them. Then also from a schematic standpoint, they give you a number of challenges too because they're very, very multiple [with personnel]."
Finding success on the ground and building off last week's progress is important for the Ravens in this weekend's critical matchup at M&T Bank Stadium. The running game proved last week that it still has potential to get chunks of yardage, and now the group will go up against possibly its toughest matchup of the year.
"I think as a group collectively, we played better. But, that's one game, and the results still weren't what we wanted in terms of the end result," Caldwell said. "We've got a real challenge ahead of us this week and, as we talked about a little earlier, they are maybe the finest run defense in the league."