The Ravens, for the most part, deploy a 3-4 front as their primary defense. They have been known to switch back and forth between a 3-4 and a 4-3 front throughout the course of a game or a drive since they have so many interchangeable parts on defense, but they usually come out with three down linemen and four linebackers.
In the event that they come out in the 4-3, linebacker Terrell Suggs — who played defensive end in college — puts his hand on the ground and right end Haloti Ngata moves to the inside, next to nose tackle Kelly Gregg.
As with most 3-4 fronts, Baltimore's defensive line is tasked with the responsibility of occupying blockers at the line of scrimmage in order to free up the linebackers to flow to the football and make plays. While this is certainly the case with the three players up front for the Ravens, they also possess above-average pass-rushing skills and Ngata especially can sneak up on the quarterback with his ability to penetrate.
On the left side of the offense, which is Ngata's and Suggs' side of the defense, the availability of Ryan Diem will be critical. If Diem can't go, Tony Ugoh will have to move over to right tackle and either Charlie Johnson or Michael Toudouze will play left tackle. If Diem is not available, it will be best for Indianapolis to avoid the left side of the defense in the running game and roll protection over to that side in the passing game. Suggs and Ngata are the two most dangerous players on Baltimore's front seven and it wouldn't be smart for the Colts to challenge them with inexperienced blockers.
Gregg is a fine nose tackle and has enjoyed success in this defense for a number of years, but he's not particularly big or strong. He makes most of his plays by making excellent use of his hands to get off blocks or occupy a double team. Jeff Saturday can actually handle him one-on-one when Indianapolis runs the ball by getting low on Gregg at the snap and neutralizing his best asset.
In the passing game, with pressure likely coming up the middle from Ray Lewis, Bart Scott, and Suggs on stunts, the Colts will be best served by employing more of a zone scheme in the middle, with Saturday, Jake Scott, and Ryan Lilja all responsible for the man entering their area, defaulting to Joseph Addai in the event that the Ravens bring more than the three interior linemen can block.
With all the stunting and blitzing the Ravens do on defense, natural running lanes will be created for Addai and Kenton Keith. But, a lot more of the Colts' success in the running game will come from quarterback Peyton Manning and his ability to read the linebackers when he breaks the huddle and comes to the line.
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This game will be billed as a chess match between Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis, and rightfully so. In the previous three matchups between these teams, Manning would come to the line, read the defense, and audible. Lewis would then audible to a different defense.
The two men would audible back and forth until the ball was snapped. For the most part, however, both teams have adjusted to this pre-snap ballet, and the wild gestures and play calls mean little at this point.
Indianapolis has become a better running team and has taken more of a zone blocking approach in the passing game against teams like the Baltimore Ravens that bring pressure from different angles and deploy a number of stunts and exotic blitzes. As a result, Baltimore's defensive strategy against Indianapolis has little effect on their passing game, but a profound effect when the Colts run the ball.
The Ravens have taken to putting ten men close to the line of scrimmage and crowding the box, scattering at the snap and heading in different directions.
It may look chaotic, but it is all by design and each of those ten men has an assignment — with Ed Reed playing centerfield as the lone man not close to the line. Therefore, when Manning audibles to a run, he must correctly guess who is stunting, who is blitzing, who is shooting which gap, and where defenders are coming from.
If he guesses right, as he did repeatedly in the 2006 playoffs, the Colts will be successful. If guesses wrong, Indianapolis will have a great deal of difficulty running the ball.
Two yards and a cloud of dust is an acceptable tradeoff in the grand scheme of things. It is safe, reliable, and could turn into 10-, 15-, or even 20-yard scampers by either Keith or Addai. The biggest risks — and the biggest potential rewards — lie in the passing game and the Colts ability to wear down Baltimore's talented secondary.
With the line of scrimmage crowded and Ed Reed playing centerfield, responsible for the entire deep area, a tremendous amount of pressure is placed on the skilled cornerback duo of Chris McAllister and Samari Rolle.
It has been well established over the past few seasons that the best way to get beat by Peyton Manning is to blitz him liberally. However, with the scheme that the Ravens run against the Colts, that may be their only option.
All of those players playing so close to the line mean that Baltimore will have to execute to near perfection in order to be effective on Sunday night, even against a depleted receiving corps that will most likely be without Marvin Harrison once again.
The aggressive, instinctual nature of Rolle and McAllister would lead one to believe that opportunities exist in the deep passing game with double moves and pump fakes. The only issue with that is such plays generally take too long to develop and Manning won't have enough time to operate.
If he waits for those plays to develop, he'll be on his back long before he has a chance to hit his receiver. In addition, Dallas Clark, Anthony Gonzalez, and Reggie Wayne will see press coverage at the snap, with Rolle, McAllister, and either safety Dawan Landry or nickel back Corey Ivy hoping to hold them up at the line long enough for the front seven to get to Manning.
If the receivers can get a clean release off the line, there will be a great deal of real estate for them to operate in, especially on the perimeter, as the area between the hashes will be a treacherous and crowded place for receivers to tread.Manning does not need to bomb the ball to his targets deep down the field. He simply needs to make quick, accurate passes, get rid of the ball quickly, and allow his receivers to make plays.
Since there will be so many defenders at or near the line of scrimmage, there will be seams for the ball carriers to run through and the opportunity for yards after the catch.
Given the matchups and savvy of the players involved at key positions, this could be a hard-fought battle that wages well into the second half. If the variables and expected outcomes were run through a computer simulation, this could very well end in a draw. However, the plays are made by individuals on the field. Indianapolis is more patient, disciplined, and less emotional across the board and their calculated resolve will eventually prevail.
The Ravens' defense has always been the cornerstone of their team. They have always fed off emotion and momentum. After their Monday night collapse against the Patriots, this is a defense that is drained mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Early success by Manning and the Colts will have a profound and geometric effect on the psyche of this unit, just as an early turnover or several consecutive three-and-outs will have a similar positive effect.
Indianapolis needs to come out ready to attack and take advantage of the fact that this is a proud, but wounded defensive squad. The more early success they have, the more dividends it will pay as the game wears on.If the Colts can score early on this Baltimore defense, they will score late, and they will score often throughout the course of the game. If they struggle early, it will revitalize this emotionally-charged unit and the battle will wage on.