Key Matchup: Heap vs Colts' Zone Defense

Greg Talmage takes a look at Ravens tight end Todd Heap's role in this Saturday's playoff matchup, and what the Colts' zone defense will have to do to reduce his impact on the outcome of the contest.

The way in which the Baltimore Ravens use tight end Todd Heap and how the Colts choose to defend against him is a critical component to Saturday's game. Heap quickly became one of quarterback Steve McNair's favorite targets. He has developed into one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league.

Heap plays with excellent focus and concentration, will go over the middle and can make catches in traffic. He also can catch the ball anywhere on the field. He shows excellent receiving skills on short, intermediate and long routes. The tight-end leads all Raven receivers in receptions (73) and touchdowns (6).

One important aspect of Heap's performance is his third-down activity. He's the guy to whom McNair most often looks to when the Ravens need to move the chains. Of the tight end's 73 receptions in the regular season, 46 were for first downs or touchdowns. And it's those third-down completions that'll be vital on Saturday, because they keep Peyton Manning off the field and frustrates a defense that has struggled in some games to get a third-down stop.

The Ravens will move the versatile Heap around, including playing him out in the slot, in an attempt to create mismatches. Against the Colts safeties, they'll want to get Heap up the seam, so he can make some plays in the middle of the field. He is a very clever receiver who knows how to get open in tight spots.

Colts safety Bob Sanders (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
The Colt to watch who will have a big impact on Heap's results on Saturday is Bob Sanders. If the Colts are forced to bring him down into the box to help support against the run frequently, it will mean more room in which Heap can operate in the secondary. Last week the Colts were able to get away with putting an extra man in the box. That just might not be the case this week, and Heap's the reason why.

When McNair goes to the line you better believe the veteran QB will locate Sanders before every snap and decipher the free safety's intentions. If Sanders is playing close to the line, McNair will read that and look to run Heap past Sanders on deep seam routes. If Sanders is back in coverage, McNair will likely check to a run or work the underneath routes and try to let their outside wide receivers make plays with what they can do after the catch.

What makes this week different from last week is the talent level in the skill positions between Kansas City and Baltimore. The Colts made a calculated decision to consistently drop an extra man into the tackle box to stop Kansas City's Larry Johnson last week because they didn't see the Chiefs outside receivers as much of a consistent threat. That's not the case this week with Ravens' wide receivers Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason.

Another thing that worked to the Colts advantage last week was the fact that Tony Gonzalez was called on to block quite a bit. The Ravens also won't need tight end Todd Heap to stay in as a blocker the way the Chiefs needed Tony Gonzalez. The Ravens trust their OTs to handle the Colts' speedy defensive ends without help. And if they need a tight end to stay in and block it will more often be Daniel Wilcox, not Heap.

Slowing Todd Heap is going to take a group effort by the Colts linebackers, safeties, and even cornerbacks. It'll be an interesting matchup to keep an eye on this Saturday.

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