The Colts haven't just been bad at stopping the run thus far this season, they've been dreadful. They rank last in the league in yards rushing allowed per game, although they have faced more rushing attempts per game than any other team at 38.8.
That can't really be used an excuse, though, since teams are still averaging 4.9 yards per carry against this generous unit and they haven't seen much of a need to throw the ball.
While it's obvious that the Ravens are going to attack this weakness in order to grind out yards on the ground and insulate their rookie quarterback, three yards and a cloud of dust has basically been Baltimore's offensive strategy the entire season, as they are averaging a league-leading 40.2 rush attempts per game — seven more attempts per game than the second-ranked Redskins — though they are currently averaging only 3.8 yards per attempt.
The fact that they chose to run the ball as much as they have, given that they played two games against stout run defenses in Pittsburgh and Tennessee, even further cements their commitment to running the ball.
The outlook doesn't get any brighter for the Colts, since the three best run blocking offensive linemen in their front five — Marshal Yanda, Jason Brown, and Ben Grubbs — are also their three interior linemen, the soft spot in the Indianapolis defense. With their massive bookends — right tackle Adam Terry is 6-feet-8, 330 pounds, and left tackle Jared Gaither stands an Ogden-esque 6-feet-9 and weighs in at 330 pounds — pushing ends off the ball and creating more seams on the inside, it is a very formidable unit that the undersized and undermanned Colts defensive line must face off against.
Put simply, either Daniel Muir or LaJuan Ramsey needs to step up and anchor effectively at the nose tackle position and either Raheem Brock or Keyunta Dawson needs to remain active and tie up blockers at the under tackle position.
If that doesn't happen, the Ravens will call three plays the entire game — run left, run right, and run middle. In addition, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and Brock — when he does play end — need to get low, use their leverage to their favor, not take the outside angle to the quarterback, instead focusing on the inside lanes, and avoid, at all costs, letting Gaither and Terry get their hands on them and lock on. If the two big tackles are able to engulf their man, it's over.
Finally, this is not an offensive line that the front four can handle on their own in the running game. Liberal run blitzes from Gary Brackett, Freddy Keiaho, and Clint Session will need to be employed in order to fill the gaps on the inside and get to the ball carrier.
If the running backs for the Ravens are able to get to the line of scrimmage with a head of steam consistently, they won't need to worry about the passing game.
One glimmering ray of hope for the Colts in this match-up is that neither Terry nor Gaither is particularly nimble and they both tend to struggle against smaller, more athletic pass rushers. If the Colts can force the Ravens into known passing situations and Mathis and Freeney are able to pin their ears back and take those outside lanes, they'll be consistently able to get to the quarterback.
WR Derrick Mason
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Mason is the only receiver with double-digit receptions on the team, while Baltimore's fans await the potential of Mark Clayton to come through and for tight end Todd Heap to get well — and get on the same page as quarterback Joe Flacco.
Typically, when forced to throw the ball, the Ravens will max protect, send two or three receivers into the pattern, and simplify Flacco's reads as much as possible. In these situations, Flacco will generally isolate on Mason, but he has been known to target Clayton occasionally as well.
On passing downs, the Colts need to count on the tenacity of their pass rushing front four to pressure Flacco and trust their zones, responsibilities, and athletes in the back seven.
This is where Antoine Bethea will be particularly effective, as the Colts should move him to Mason's side and have him roam wherever Mason takes him. That will leave Melvin Bullitt exposed but, until the Ravens prove they can make an opponent pay deep, Indianapolis should continue to focus their attention in the areas surrounding the line to gain.
McGahee is smaller, but more explosive than McClain. He has been limited so far by knee, eye, and chest injuries — at different times, not all at once — so he has been difficult to gauge so far this season. What will always be true about McGahee, though, is that he is decisive, makes excellent cuts, hits the hole with authority, and generally gains yards after contact.
If he returns to full health — or some proximity thereof — for this game, he will have numerous opportunities to gash the Colts inside for big gains.
McClain is listed as a fullback on the Ravens depth chart, but is more of a tailback in fullback's clothing. He has good vision, outstanding size at 6 feet and 260 pounds, powerful, driving legs that push the pile, and nifty feet for a big man — possibly the best feet for a man of his girth since Jerome Bettis.
So far, he has proven himself to be the most effective of the Baltimore running backs, leading the team in attempts (66), yards (266), touchdowns (four), and, most impressively, yards per carry (4.2).
Both men are more than adequate receivers and will be used as safety valves — they will be the second or third man in the pattern on passing downs — quite frequently. Since they generally just need a seam or a crease, they are dangerous in the open field, but neither has the pure speed to break a huge play.
They can, however, convert a back-breaking third and long, so the Colts need to be aware of them and make sure the first man brings the ball carrier down.
They are also north-to-south runners — as is rookie tailback Ray Rice — and will not be successful at all if forced to run east-to-west. One of the best aspects about all three men, though, is that they realize this limitation and tend to just run into the pile, getting low, pumping their legs, and picking up whatever yardage they can. It is therefore absolutely imperative that none of these men see any daylight along the line of scrimmage.
It will be a test for the mental and physical endurance of the front seven, since the Ravens won't ever stop coming at them, but they must be up to the task. Daylight is not an option.
Joe Flacco has been praised too much for his poise and his maturity and not nearly enough for his ability and intelligence. While it's true that Baltimore's coaching staff has set him up for success, they have also set up their system so that he has very little room for error.
If Peyton Manning throws an incompletion, he knows that he has 30 more attempts in that game to make it up. If Flacco throws an incompletion, his team is forced to punt.
Using his intelligence and ability — solid vision, an incredible arm, and sound decision making — he has succeeded far more often than he has failed, in a situation where failure is not a realistic option. The Ravens have had far fewer three-and-outs thus far this season and that is a testimony to Flacco and the Ravens' coaches.
What Flacco cannot do, however, is win a game by himself. He is simply not in a position to do so, both from a maturity and knowledge standpoint, and in light of the fact that the Ravens will do anything in their power not to put him in that situation.
They pride themselves on running the ball, playing sound defense and special teams, and being in a position to win the game in the fourth quarter.
The best way to keep this strategy from working, of course, is for the Colts to jump on the Ravens early, take away his two or three reads in the first half, and force him to come back against a large deficit in the second half.
But, even if that doesn't happen, the Colts should like their chances if they are clinging to a late lead and it is incumbent upon Flacco to bring them back.
Todd Heap is still a very talented player and his best days in the NFL are not yet behind him. If the Colts run blitz early, the Ravens are likely to adjust with quick patterns over the middle.
The most logical target to make those plays is Heap, who is a big target with mostly reliable hands.
If this adjustment is made, the best way for Baltimore to stay in the game and keep moving the chains is to get the ball to Heap, a former Pro Bowl player with enough left in the tank.