The front seven in general, and the defensive line in particular, is very flexible for the Ravens. They can transition seamlessly from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense without changing personnel and by barely changing where they are lined up.
Linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs is the key player in this transition, since he has the size at 6-feet-3 and 260 pounds to play end in the 4-3 and the speed to play linebacker in the 3-4.
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Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan has been with the team since 1999 and has had the same core players for a number of years, so they know the system and Ryan knows their strengths and limitations. They can be extremely effective when working through these transitions and can change into and out of a defense as quickly as Peyton Manning can audible.
However, Kelly Gregg, the other key player in the equation, was placed on injured reserve this week, which will somewhat limit what they can do on defense. Gregg had been replaced by Justin Bannan for a few games, though, so the effect on the team will not be as great.
The important player to watch, though, as the Baltimore defense morphs from a 3-4 to a 4-3 and back to a 3-4 again is Haloti Ngata. A former first-round pick now in his third season, Ngata is the only player on the defensive line with the size, speed, talent, and familiarity with the defense to play defensive end in the 3-4 and nose tackle in both the 3-4 and 4-3 formations. If he lines up inside, the Ravens intend to change formations.
It would make sense for the Colts to run between the tackles and test the soft middle of the defense, with Gregg out and Bannan filling in. The issue with that is that the two linebackers patrolling the middle of the defense, Ray Lewis and Bart Scott, are both very capable players and take pride in their ability to stop the run.
In addition, Bannan has had a few weeks to learn the position and his responsibilities in the system, as well as becoming familiar with how Lewis and Scott operate.
Suggs is only a decent two-way defender and is primarily responsible for rushing the passer, but he is still too fast and too tenacious for the Colts to successfully run off tackle against him. Also, if the Ravens stay in their base defense, that is the side that Ngata plays end on in the 3-4 and Ngata is too stout at the point of attack — especially with a player like Suggs behind him — to test his side of the ball.
But, if Manning sees Ngata slide inside and Suggs put his hand on the ground as an end in the 4-3, then that would be an opportune time to audible to a run to Suggs' side of the field.
The true mismatch comes on the right side, where Ryan Diem is considerably larger than left end Trevor Pryce, and outside linebacker Jarret Johnson is too flat-footed to get to the edge. At this point in his career, Pryce is a serviceable player who was once great. In four starts, he has only five tackles and one sack. Even though the end in the 3-4 scheme is not a statistics heavy position, those stats are sub-par at best.
In the passing game, the linemen are primarily responsible for occupying blockers and attacking gaps so that the linebackers and safeties can rush the passer coming in behind them. Bannan will mostly concerned with trying to crash the middle of the pocket and Lewis and Scott are more valuable in pass coverage and run support than they are as blitzers.
The key for the Colts offensive — and Manning — will be to identify where the fourth rusher is coming from.
If Suggs has his hand on the ground, the identification is made easier, but Tony Ugoh still needs to block him. The best strategy for the Ravens would be to overload one side — probably the weak side with Suggs and Ngata — and force Ugoh, Mike Pollak, and Joseph Addai to make snap decisions on who they are supposed to block.
The simple solution for the Colts would be to come out in primarily two tight end formations, at least on first and second down, leaving a tight end in to block and allowing Addai or Dominic Rhodes to operate as a receiver out of the backfield.
Ray Lewis is, per usual, the leading tackler on the team, with 30 stops. Johnson is second with 20 tackles, while Suggs and Scott have 16 each.
This goes to show that the rest of the NFL has recognized that Pryce is not the player he once was — even though it could be argued that he is holding the line and setting up Lewis and Johnson to make plays, Ngata and Bannan have more tackles in fewer overall opportunities — and it also goes to show that teams have been avoiding the area most commonly occupied by Scott, Suggs, and Ngata.
Once again, running behind Diem and Charlie Johnson is a sound strategy, but a team can only get so far running the ball against the Ravens. Even though they posted a 6-10 record last season, they did not allow a 100 yard rusher and have not allowed one this season. Yards are tough to gain and hard to come by on the ground against this front seven, for sure.
But, where they excel against the run, they are vulnerable against the pass. The best linebacker in terms of coverage, Lewis, is not the player he once was in the passing game, though he makes up for the fact that he has lost a half step by anticipating and reading the play well.
Johnson and Suggs are best suited in run support or rushing the quarterback, which is probably where they are going to be used. It will be up to Manning and Jeff Saturday to identify who is going to be in coverage and who is going to be pursuing the quarterback on a particular play and set the blocking schemes accordingly.
The best of all worlds for Manning would be to have Addai or Rhodes and Dallas Clark flank him in the backfield. If no blitz materializes and no extra rushers come, Addai and Clark will be able to release and will most likely be picked up by a linebacker, which is an ideal match-up situation for the Indianapolis offense.
Despite injuries and the pressure they face in supporting an offense that has been more serviceable than prolific, this is still a strong, proud defense, and they will do everything in their power to make Manning and the Colts offense pay. This is why the offense needs to create and exploit every favorable match-up it can. And there are a couple of them in the secondary as well.
Samari Rolle has been declared out for this game already and back-up Fabian Washington did not participate in practice on Thursday. Even if Washington practices on Friday and starts in the game on Sunday, he will be limited. It is safe to say that a limited Fabian Washington is no match for a healthy Reggie Wayne.
Although the always dangerous Ed Reed is the safety on Washington's side, it is imperative that the Colts target Wayne early and often, as he will have a number of quality opportunities in this matchup.
On the other side of the field, Anthony Gonzalez was actually highly effective in last season's game against Corey Ivy, who will be working the slot and covering Gonzalez one-on-one. With Gonzalez working the middle against Ivy and Clark and Addai working the short areas of the field against the linebackers, Manning should have plenty of chances against this defense.
The one unfavorable matchup — Marvin Harrison versus Chris McAlister — actually has a favorable caveat. While McAllister is still one of the best cornerbacks in the league, he has a tendency to be too aggressive and bite on double moves, stutter moves, and pump fakes.
He depends upon strong safety Dawan Landry a great deal to cover the deep part of the field. Landry has also been declared out for Sunday's game and his replacement, rookie Tom Zbikowski, was limited in practice on Thursday.
Although Manning should be too busy looking in the direction of Wayne, Gonzalez, Clark, and Addai, if he does happen to run a slant-and-go or an out-and-up to Harrison's side, chances are it will be open for a big play.
Gonzalez victimized a secondary that had both a healthy Reed and a healthy Landry in last year's 44-20 victory, so Harrison should have similar results.
The Ravens know that they have these weaknesses in the secondary and they will try to conceal them and compensate for them. The best way for them to do that is to pressure Manning, who is operating behind an offensive line that is not at full health and is dealing with some transitional hiccups.
Manning is, more than anyone else on offense, the player going through the biggest set of "transitional hiccups".
He has been out of sync with his receivers, out of sync with his offensive line — and the subsequent line calls and protections — and unable to make certain plays in the running game and the passing game.
The offense has been limited by his inability to perform certain tasks, the rhythm of the entire unit is off — miscommunications and dropped passes, two things that rarely happened in previous seasons are fairly commonplace this season — and they only seem to be effective in the two minute offense, where failure is not an option and pushing the ball up the field vertically is a necessity.
Against the Vikings, Bears, Jaguars, and Texans, the Colts faced teams that play conservatively on defense and tend to try to eliminate the big play. Against the Ravens on Sunday, the Colts will get their first look at an aggressive unit that will try to attack the line of scrimmage and rough up Indianapolis as much as possible.
If ever there was an opportunity to strike on some big plays, to throw the ball deep and see what happens, this is it.
Baltimore is wounded on defense and is working with some replacement players that are far less accomplished than the men they are substituting for. They have played two straight close games against very physical teams and are probably worn down and definitely beat up.
But, this is a veteran team that will not go down without a fight. The Colts must take the fight to them.