He isn't the dominating and imposed presence that he once was, but left tackle Jonathan Ogden is still a fantastic player and the cornerstone of Baltimore's offensive line. Throughout the course of the season, particularly against the Patriots, the Ravens chose to run behind Ogden and left guard Jason Brown. Baltimore typically runs screens and draws to the left and, when they absolutely, positively need to make a play, they tend to favor Ogden's side of of the line.
Now that he has moved to right end, Robert Mathis has a stiff challenge in front of him on Sunday night. He should take a page out of Dwight Freeney's playbook and use a combination of speed and leverage, keeping his power and momentum — which is primarily located in his legs and hips — low to the ground.
Mathis won't be able to throw Ogden around like a rag doll because of the size difference between the two men, but he should be able to use leverage and technique to drive Ogden, releasing and spinning towards the quarterback when he gets close.
Josh Thomas, on the other hand, has a much tougher task in front of him, for no other reason than he's a less talented and explosive player than Mathis. His objective is to make sure that he holds strong at the point of attack in the run game and pursues up field in the passing game against Adam Terry, forcing Kyle Boller to step up into Raheem Brock and Ed Johnson pushing up the middle and Mathis coming from the edge to collapse the pocket to the inside.
Brock and Johnson should have an easier time against the venerable Mike Flynn, Brown, and the inexperienced Chris Chester. They will be able to bring consistent pressure up the middle and penetrate in the backfield with more consistency and success than New England's Vince Wilfork did in Week 13, since the Ravens are built to attack 3-4 fronts better than 4-3 fronts — particularly not ones as quick and active as Johnson and Brock.
However, Baltimore was able to manhandle the very physical front seven of the Patriots and control the line of scrimmage on Monday night. The key for the Colts will be to play their game on the correct side of the line, forcing Willis McGahee to run east and west.
If they are pushed off the ball and the Ravens are able to open up lanes for their talented running back, it is going to eliminate the considerable advantage the secondary holds against Baltimore's receivers.
Indianapolis is very familiar with Derrick Mason from his days with the Titans, but he is a significantly different player than the man they lined up against twice a year during his Tennessee days.
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Once a crafty receiver that could also beat a team deep with his speed, Mason is now just a crafty receiver. He will still be able to find the holes in the Cover 2 scheme that the Colts deploy, but it will take him longer than in years past. In theory — and this is one of the central tenets of Tony Dungy's defensive scheme — quarterback Kyle Boller will have either checked down or have been sacked by the time Mason settles into his zone.
Mark Clayton is beginning to emerge as a playmaker in the NFL and he is, by far, the biggest threat in Baltimore's receiving corps.
Todd Heap may not play in this game, or for the rest of the season, but even if he does play, he will be limited by injury. When Boller is looking to get the ball deep or convert on third and long, he will look in Clayton's direction first and second before trying to locate Mason, then checking down to McGahee.
Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden will need to be physical with these Clayton and Mason at the snap, hoping to slow them down enough for the pass rush to catch up to Boller, as well as leaving little chance for the Ravens to throw deep, since Bob Sanders will be forced into the box to limit McGahee.
In the event that Clayton gets a clean release off the line and is able to get over the top, Antoine Bethea, playing center field, needs to shade over to Clayton's side of the field and keep everything in front of him.
Baltimore will also throw a number of screens and check-downs in McGahee's direction. He is a very shifty runner and can be absolutely deadly in open space, so Indianapolis will need to keep the line to gain in mind, keep everything in front of them, and practice sound tackling techniques.
Above all else, Indianapolis needs to stop Willis McGahee. Everything the Ravens do on offense starts on stops with their talented young tailback.
Though he is dangerous in the open field and has a very effective head fake, McGahee is not very skilled at cutting back against the grain. With Brock, Johnson, Mathis, and Thomas shooting their gaps, penetrating into the backfield, and forcing McGahee east and west, this should leave open opportunities for Tyjuan Hagler, Freddy Keiaho, and Gary Brackett to pursue him.
When they get a shot at him, they need to wrap him up and bring him down. Once McGahee gets started north and south, he is very difficult to bring down... or catch.
A key player here is Hagler. Mathis crashing to the inside is an excellent strategy when Baltimore decides to throw the ball, but does leave a natural seam for McGahee to bounce to the outside. If that happens, Hagler needs to take McGahee down while he is still in the midst of his jump cut. After he has executed it, there is too much of a talent gap between the two players for Hagler to bring down McGahee one on one.
When the Ravens run between the tackles, the onus is mostly on Brock and Johnson to occupy Baltimore's three interior blockers at the point of attack. However, Brackett, Keiaho, and Sanders need to make sure that they stay aggressive, forget about the possibility of a cutback, and pursue the ball carrier. If they hesitate, McGahee will be gone, at least getting past the second level for a first down.
If the Ravens are able to create a seam, the first blocker through the hole will be fullback Le'Ron McClain. The responsibility falls to Brackett in this situation to take him on, eliminate him from the play, and allow Keiaho and Sanders to clean up.
It will take a team effort on defense to stop McGahee, but he is the only bankable weapon in Baltimore's arsenal. If the Colts defenders are able to play their game, tackle soundly, and force McGahee to move laterally, they will win this game. If not, it will be a long night for Indianapolis.
Kyle Boller has a rocket arm and amazing feet. He lacks sound decision-making ability, patience, and the necessary skills to read coverages on the fly. Steve McNair has none of Boller's weaknesses, but none of his strengths, either.
Unfortunately for the Ravens, they are unable to take the best attributes of both quarterbacks and combine them into one. Especially now, since McNair has been placed on injured reserve and his season is over.
Since they are cognizant of Boller's arm strength, Baltimore has expanded the playbook to include more deep routes, 15-yard outs, and deep posts. But since the offensive line has struggled in pass protection and their quarterback has a tendency to hold the ball too long, they have not had the opportunity to take advantage of Boller's skills and their newfound game plan.
The bottom line is that without an effective running game, the play-action passing game will sputter. With an effective running game, the Ravens can level the playing field and eliminate the mismatches that exist with Indianapolis' secondary versus Baltimore's receivers.
Early on, the Ravens will run a number of draw plays and screen passes, mixed with quick slants, ins, and outs to the receivers in an attempt to neutralize the Colts' pass rush and get Boller into a comfort zone.
In order to combat this, Indianapolis needs to stay close to the line, hit anything that comes into their zone, and tackle anyone with the ball. By playing an attacking style of defense in the first quarter, the Colts will begin to accrue dividends that will pay off in the second quarter and beyond.
One of the biggest favors Peyton Manning and the offense can do is to score early and force the Ravens out of their game plan. If they are allowed to play their game, control the clock, and place Boller in manageable third downs where they play call could be a run or a pass, the game will come down to who makes the most plays in the fourth quarter.
If the Colts are able to get up on the Ravens early and force them to become a one-dimensional offense, Indianapolis will have Baltimore right where they want them. This is a team that is divided between offense and defense. Their trusted and preferred leader, Steve McNair, is not coming back this season and they are saddled with Boller. If the defense folds early and the offense is unable to keep pace, they will implode.
It is going to take a strong early effort from both offense and defense to ensure that this implosion occurs.