The Indianapolis Colts (2-2) will be looking to make a Sunday statement that they’re AFC title contenders when they host the Baltimore Ravens (3-1). Here are five Colts keys for the 1 p.m. kickoff at Lucas Oil Stadium:
1. Stick with what works — If capital letters weren’t so obnoxious, this would be typed in all caps. Pass to set up the run. The Ravens’ defense is stout against the run, so it would be a waste of play calls to slam Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson up the gut on first down all the time. The Colts lead the NFL in scoring and total yards because they turned quarterback Andrew Luck loose on Jacksonville and Tennessee. Let Luck do the same against the NFL’s 24th-ranked pass defense. He’s completed passes to nine different pass catchers in each of the last two games. Let him spread it around, and when the Ravens are reeling and trying to defend, that’s when the run lanes will start to open up.
2. Use extra help to pass protect — Colts head coach Chuck Pagano knows the Ravens’ 3-4 blitzing scheme as well as anyone after his four-year stint in Baltimore. Linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs will be bringing pressure off the edge. Dumervill has 3.5 of the team’s four sacks. The smart move is to have an extra tight end or running back utilized for blitz pick-up, especially considering the Colts might start undrafted rookie Jonotthan Harrison at center with backup Lance Louis opening at left guard for the injured Jack Mewhort. While it’s easy to focus on the edge rushers, look for the Ravens to pound that interior with stunts and different looks. Luck has been sacked just twice the past three games. Keep him clean as much as possible.
3. Beware of the bootlegs — Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is known for rolling out his quarterbacks to throw off the defense. The Colts had to face this twice a year when Kubiak was Houston’s head coach. This has been a problem because the Colts’ 3-4 defense gets over-anxious and players don’t stick to their assignments. That’s when big plays happen. Edge rushers need to stay in their lanes and expect the unexpected. Don’t get fooled or quarterback Joe Flacco has the receivers in Steve Smith Sr. and Torrey Smith to dial long distance. While the Colts’ pass rush has been spotty at best, again, the key here is to contain and get steady pressure so Flacco doesn’t have all day to throw. Rollouts are an easy way against an aggressive defense to get the passer in the clear so he can find the open man.
4. Strong against the run — The Ravens average 4.5 yards per carry and utilize three backs to wear down defenses. As much as Flacco can wing it, getting the best of him starts with taking away the rush. Stopping one aspect makes an offense one-dimensional and that’s half the battle. But the Colts must get off the field on third down. The Ravens have converted 50 percent of third downs while the Colts have allowed opponents to convert 37.8 percent of third downs. Success in this area starts on the earlier downs. Favorable down-and-distances increase the defense’s chances of stops. Let the Ravens dictate and by the fourth quarter, they have effectively worn down the defense. The Ravens have outscored opponents 34-8 in the fourth quarter. The Colts have allowed 31 fourth-quarter points. Don’t let it come to that.
5. Safety cover is wise — When Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky was asked how to cover Ravens 35-year-old wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., he said, “Double him. Double him.” Coaches typically don’t tip their hand, but he’s stating the obvious. While the Colts might not commit an extra defender to Smith every play, it would be wise to give a cornerback help on either Smith or Torrey Smith as much as possible. Those guys stretch the field. They go deep and will make cornerbacks run. Colts safety Sergio Brown is making just his fourth NFL start, so the Ravens will be testing him early and often. While Colts cornerback Vontae Davis is a solid cover corner and the expectation is for him to handle either guy one-on-one, the smart move is to employ Brown or safety Mike Adams as a safety cover over the top so it’s not always up to Davis or cornerback Greg Toler to limit big plays.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.