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Texans defense healthier for rematch with Patriots

Texans defense healthier for rematch with Patriots

HOUSTON (AP) The first time Houston faced the Patriots, top cornerback Johnathan Joseph played while still struggling to get healthy, and outside linebacker Brooks Reed sat out with an injury.

That game turned into an embarrassing 42-14 loss to New England. Now both are back to full strength, and the Texans believe that makes their defense much stronger this time around.

``Right now, I can probably say this is the best I've felt all year,'' Joseph said.

He was slowed by a hamstring injury that kept him out the two games before the first matchup against the Patriots.

``Obviously, back then I was good enough to play but I wasn't at my best,'' he said. ``Right now I can say I'm 100 percent.''

Joseph, who often shadows the opponent's best receiver, knows that he and the rest of the secondary will have their hands full. Not only must they deal with New England's wide receivers, but also its tight end duo of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski didn't play in the first game against Houston.

``They can place the ball on his back side or throw it up top and those guys both have great hands where they can make the difficult catch in traffic,'' Joseph said. ``For us, it will be a task, but I think that we have the guys here that are up for the challenge. It's just about making plays.''

Reed, a second-year player, started 12 games in the regular season. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips called him a ``physical force.''

``He's obviously a good player, but I think just his physicality really helps us as far as our mental toughness overall as a defensive unit,'' Phillips said.

A frustrated Reed had to watch the team struggle against the Patriots and not be able to help out.

``Now, it's a little bit different,'' he said. ``So I'll be out there and try to make plays of my own.''

Reed had a sack last week against the Bengals; he now has at least one in each the three postseason games in Texans history. His best playoff performance came last season against the Ravens when he had 2 1/2 sacks.

Joseph appreciates Reed's versatility.

``He can play the run and the pass, so he's a two-sided guy,'' Joseph said. ``I think he had just experience from last year coming in ... so just having Brooks back and those guys rotating and whatever they're doing up front, I think it just helps those guys from a health standpoint and just being fresh all the time.''

Houston is hoping to build on last week's dominant defensive performance in its 19-13 wild-card win over the Bengals. The Texans limited them to 198 yards, which was the lowest yardage total in the first round of the playoffs, and only 53 before halftime.

They also cleaned up their problems on third down, not allowing Cincinnati to convert any of its nine third-down chances.

This week the Texans know they must get pressure on Tom Brady and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. They'll look to defensive star J.J. Watt to lead that charge. Watt led the NFL with a franchise-record 20 1/2 sacks in the regular season. He also had 107 tackles, including 39 for losses, 16 passes defended and forced four fumbles.

In Watt's rookie season, the Texans lost to the Ravens in the divisional round.

``We were happy to make it as far as we did, but this year, new year, new goals,'' he said. ``Biggest goal of them all, Super Bowl, and this is a big step for us, and we're really excited about the challenge.''

Phillips, who began coaching in the NFL in 1976, believes Watt is clearly the best defensive player in the NFL this season.

``He had the best season ever,'' Phillips said. ``I mean, nobody has had a season like that. Nobody has made that many tackles, that many sacks, that many pass breakups and that many tackles for loss or tackles for no gain in the history of football. Nobody has had a year like that. It's the best I've ever seen, sure.''

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Ravens experimenting with getting Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson on field at same time

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Ravens experimenting with getting Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson on field at same time

Since drafting Lamar Jackson, the Ravens have made it clear that Joe Flacco is their starter. That doesn't mean they're not experimenting with having them both on the field at the same time, however. 

During this week's minicamp, the team has been lining Jackson up at multiple positions. 

"Gosh, I sure like him out there helping us," coach John Harbaugh said of Jackson during Tuesday's minicamp, via ESPN.com.

"If you put two quarterbacks on the field at once, what options does it create for our offense? That's what we're trying to figure out."

While at Louisville, Jackson rushed for 4,132 yards and 50 touchdowns in three seasons. That's more rushing yards than No. 2 overall pick Saquon Barkley. That unique skill set could be the creative options the Ravens are looking for. 

While at the NFL Combine, however, Jackson refused to workout at any other position than QB. 

"I have a lot of fun seeing what they come up with and what they're going to come up with next," Jackson said. "We'll see where it goes. You have to use your good players."

The Ravens are already viewing Jackson as one of those 'good players.' 

"Once he gets out of the pocket, it's like watching a young Michael Vick," LB C.J. Mosley said after minicamp practice. "It's amazing to watch. When you're defending him, you just have to act like you're tagging off -- you don't want to be on the highlight reel."

Harbaugh has alluded to the fact that the rookie will be active on game days, just exactly how they get the most out of him is what's in play.

"There's a lot of considerations that go into that," Harbaugh said of using two QBs at the once. "Everybody has an opinion. I've read a few. You want to find a way to get the most out of all your guys."

While Flacco isn't the fasted QB in the league, he has shown glimpses of running ability in the past. Figuring out how to utilize Flacco when Jackson is under center is where things will get interesting.

Interesting - as long as it works - is what Ravens fans have been searching for over the last several seasons. 

"Joe has to be able to do other things if [Jackson is] throwing the ball," Harbaugh said. "It gets the creative juices flowing for our offensive coaches, and they've worked hard on that."

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Ravens D-coordinator Don Martindale puts personal stamp on unit

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Ravens D-coordinator Don Martindale puts personal stamp on unit

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- There are no dreary work days for Don Martindale, who has overwhelmingly embraced his new role as defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens.

After serving for five seasons as the team's linebackers coach, Martindale was promoted to coordinator in January after Dean Pees left the post.

Enthusiastic doesn't even begin to describe Martindale's attitude about being in charge of the defense.

"Ever since we've made this transition, it's been a joy to just come through those gates every day. I love it," Martindale said after Wednesday's mandatory minicamp practice.

This isn't the first time Martindale has been put in charge of molding a defense. In 2010, he watched over a unit in Denver that was the worst in the NFL in both yards and points allowed per game.

Given a second chance, the 55-year-old Martindale is putting together a defense that will rely heavily on the instinct of several of its most proven players, most notably safety Eric Weddle and linebackers Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley.

"He's just putting his personal fix on our defense and expanding it, giving the guys confidence to play fast," Weddle said. "The idea is to do what's best for the defense, not what's best the individual."

Martindale called Mosley "the quarterback" of a fluid unit that can make a snap-change from drop-back coverage to an all-out blitz. In that regard, Mosley believes this defense is superior to the one that in 2017 yielded 18.9 points per game, sixth-best in the NFL.

"The way we're able to use our core guys, put them in different spots and do some of the same things just from different positions, it's more creative, I would say, than where we were last year," Mosley said.

Baltimore coach John Harbaugh promoted Martindale rather than go outside the organization because he wanted to extend his vision of a defense that has evolved since his arrival in 2008.

"All we're doing is forwarding John's plan," Martindale said. "We're remodeling the package. It's still Ravens football, it's still Ravens defense, but we've streamlined it. It's the elegant simplicity. Guys are playing really fast."

Asked for his take on Martindale's defense, Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg replied, "They're fast and they're furious."

Sure, things might be different once the pads go on at training camp, but at this point, Martindale's boss likes what he sees.

"We're doing a lot of neat things on defense, things that are really good," Harbaugh said. "More than ever, we're putting it on our players to make decisions in real time."

Martindale has a new title, but old habits die hard.

"For the most part, it's been the same," Mosley said. "He always comes in and says, `I have to lead the linebacker room,' and sits down and gets to talking like he's back at linebacker coach."

Told of Mosley's disclosure, Martindale smiled and said, "I've been trying to stay out of there, but you can't help but go in. That's home. I have a good time in the secondary room as well."

And just about everywhere else.

"Where we're going with this thing is really exciting to me," Martindale said, "and I know it's exciting to the players."

In other training camp news, cornerback Jimmy Smith was a surprise participant at practice, going through a light regimen of individual drills just six months after tearing his left Achilles tendon.

"I don't know if Jimmy's like half Wolverine, but he's healed up in half the time of regular human beings," Weddle said, referring to the amazing recuperative powers of the Marvel super hero.

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