Third-year left tackle Jared Gaither, who at 6-foot-9 and 330 pounds, is the right size to fill the gigantic shoes of retired former Ravens tackle and possible future Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden. Ogden and Dwight Freeney had some epic battles over the years and Gaither will draw him on Sunday.
Freeney usually excels against taller left tackles due to his explosiveness and low center of gravity, but was mostly held in check by Sebastian Vollmer of the Patriots — who stands 6-foot-8 — in Week 10. Baltimore will likely approach Freeney the same way New England did, allowing Gaither to engage Freeney when he rushes straight on, move him up the field and stay in front of him when he goes to the outside, and push him into left guard Ben Grubbs when he tries to swim, spin, or stunt to the inside.
It is therefore incumbent on Freeney to engage Gaither, move him up the field, and swim to the inside. Robert Mathis was successful in doing this against Nick Kaczur last week and will definitely be sharing notes with Freeney this week and deploying the same strategy on his side of the field.
The Ravens have had some success running to Gaither's side, averaging 4.4 yards per carry over left tackle and around left end, but Freeney has allowed just over four yards per rush attempt to his side. Running to the right behind — and around — rookie Michael Oher, Baltimore has been considerably more effective, averaging 5.82 yards per carry over right tackle and around right end.
Mathis, for his part, has allowed only 3.88 yards per attempt to his side of the field, but still expect the Ravens to run to the strong side of the formation until the Colts prove they can stop it.
Baltimore is strong and distinguished up the middle, with multiple Pro Bowler Matt Birk at center, right guard Chris Chester who is a former second round selection, and Grubbs, who was chosen in the first round in 2007. Aside from the graybeard Birk, they are also young and athletic and pull and trap as well as any team Indianapolis has faced thus far this season, with the possible exception of the Titans.
They have averaged 4.47 yards per carry up the middle and the Colts have allowed an average of 4.4 yards per carry in that area, so it is safe to assume that the Ravens will play to their strengths, stay committed to the run, and attempt to wear down Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir with their three bruising interior linemen and triumverate of talented tailbacks.
In the passing game, Baltimore has allowed 19 sacks so far this season and their pass protection can be broken down. Freeney and Mathis simply need to stay after it and not allow the significantly larger and more powerful duo of Gaither and Oher to beat them down.
Gaither and Oher are both talented athletes, but they can be prone to missed assignments and lapses in concentration, so Mathis and Freeney needed to be ready to take advantage of those opportunities when they arise.
Despite several first-day draft selections and several athletes in development on the roster, Derrick Mason remains the most effective and reliable weapon in the Baltimore receiving corps.
Against the Browns on Monday night, the Ravens frequently deployed a two tight end, two running back set, often leaving Mason as the only receiver in the formation. Mason finished with three catches for 78 yards, which was half the total yards Baltimore gained through the air. Jerraud Powers will match up against Mason, though the Ravens do move him around in order to isolate him against a more favorable matchup.
In that event, Jacob Lacey needs to be ready, as Mason is a talented and crafty receiver that still has enough speed to get behind the coverage. He does not, however, have the speed and ability to do to Melvin Bullitt and Antoine Bethea what Randy Moss accomplished in Week 10.
Baltimore still averages 11.19 yards per attempt to the deep left, though, so Bullitt will need to be on his toes.
Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams are still big, fast, dangerous players, but they have yet to package their athletic ability with the technique necessary to be true threats at the NFL level. Williams was inactive against Cleveland and Clayton has only 24 receptions on the season.
It is possible that the Ravens will deploy some three wide receiver sets in order to mix things up — or if they fall behind by more than two touchdowns — but those types of formations play more to the strength of the Colts and their still stout pass defense than to the vaunted passing game of Baltimore.
Todd Heap was once one of the premiere tight ends in the league, but age, injury, and the emergence of several more relevant, explosive players at the position have relegated him to being a possible red zone threat. Joe Flacco will still look to him as a checkdown option and a favorable matchup in the red zone, but Indianapolis should not have too much trouble keeping Heap in front of them and contained.
Ray Rice has separated himself from a crowded depth chart of talented players to become the lead back in this offense. He is deceptively quick, has excellent feet, great hands, and the ability to make yards after contact or break a big play if given enough space. He is not a player that can make something out of nothing and, as a big play threat, suffers from claustrophobia if he does not have clear rush lanes.
The Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals were successful in containing him and forcing a number of negative plays by filling rush lanes and attacking. Gary Brackett and Clint Session have repeatedly shown the ability to excel in this type of attacking defense, but Philip Wheeler still has a great deal to learn.
Look for Baltimore to attack him to the strong side of the formation, running behind the blocks of Oher and Heap and challenging Wheeler to come up and make a play. Rice can still make a move and make Wheeler look foolish, but as long as Wheeler is aggressive and uses sound technique, he should be able to frustrate Rice and the Baltimore running game.
Willis McGahee has taken a fairly precipitous fall from grace and has only 236 yards on 60 attempts thus far this season. He does have five rushing touchdowns as a result of being the goal line back in the earlier part of the season, but Rice has taken up that responsibility as of late and tends not to come out of games when the Ravens get inside the ten.
The other player to watch for is Le'Ron McClain, who lines up as a fullback, but often runs plays that would be designed for a tailback. He is a more than capable receiver out of the backfield and is another target to watch for in the red zone. Ultimately, the overall success of the Colts defensive gameplan will revolve around how well they stifle the Baltimore offense and keep them between the 20s.
If the Ravens get inside the red zone, they have a number of weapons at their disposal and will be very difficult for Indianapolis to stop, given their size advantage and all the unfavorable matchups up and down the line of scrimmage.
The biggest difference between the 2009 edition of the Baltimore offense and the 2008 edition is the role and development of Joe Flacco. Last season, the Ravens were extremely protective of Flacco and bent over backwards to not overwhelm him or give him too much to do in the scheme. They limited his reads and progressions, attempted fewer passes, and tried to put him in the best possible position to succeed, consciously limiting his odds at failure.
Flacco attempted 428 passes in 2008 (26.7 per game) and has already attempted 300 passes in nine games in 2009 (33.3 per game). Head coach John Harbaugh trusts him more this year and has given him more to do and more of a stake in the overall success of the offense.
Baltimore is currently averaging 24.7 points per game. They averaged 24.1 points per game in 2008. The net effect of Flacco getting more involved has been .6 points per game. Overall, the change in results has been negligible, but the change in attitude is palpable.
The Ravens players believed in Flacco as a player last season, but they now believe in Flacco as a leader and a winner. Last season, a 14-point deficit would have seemed insurmountable. With a more capable and trusted quarterback at the helm in 2009, that attitude has changed.
In 2008, Indianapolis jumped out to an early lead and slowly pulled away en route to a 31-3 victory. If they jump out to a similar lead on Sunday, they must quickly and decidedly pull away.
The defense must remain vigilant. They cannot expect the Ravens to simply roll over and allow them to stride off to an easy win. Flacco will keep coming at them and Harbaugh will continue to let him.
This is an offense with a number of strengths, but a number of weaknesses. Flacco is no longer a weakness and cannot be treated as such. He got further in the playoffs in 2008 than Peyton Manning and his experience and guile cannot be overlooked at this point.
Flacco is the X-factor in this game and should not be ignored. The matchups favor the Colts, but Flacco is the one wild card that must be kept in check to keep this from being a tight game in which a veteran Ravens team can dig deep and find one more big play to salvage the season.
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