Haloti Ngata was inactive for the game against Cleveland on Monday night, which significantly affects how the Ravens operate on defense. He has been out the last two games, nursing an ankle injury.
If he is unable to go, his ability to shift between end and nose tackle in the 3-4 defense that Baltimore runs will cut down on the confusion the Colts would experience on the offensive line. Justin Bannan and Kelly Gregg are fine replacements, but they cannot match Ngata's athletic ability and tenacity at the point of attack.
Ngata is one of the reasons that the Ravens have only yielded 3.28 yards per carry up the middle, so his absence will be felt should Indianapolis care to run the ball on Sunday.
But, it might behoove the Colts to eschew the run as they have done thus far in 2009, as Baltimore has been extremely effective in all directions against the run, allowing only four or more yards per carry off left end and off left guard.
Ryan Lilja and Jeff Saturday did an excellent job of combo blocking Vince Wilfork in Week 10 and can do a similar job on Gregg. Ngata in the lineup shooting that gap would affect the ability of Indianapolis to run left, but would not discount that as an option.
The biggest issue will come when Baltimore decides to bring extra defenders, which they do quite frequently. Linebackers Jarret Johnson and Terrell Suggs are used interchangeably as outside linebackers and defensive ends. However, it appears Suggs will be unable to go Sunday after being injured by Brady Quinn on Monday night.
Additionally, the Ravens also frequently bring inside linebackers Tavares Gooden and Ray Lewis on stunts. Peyton Manning has become adept at diagnosing where pressure is coming from in the 3-4 defense over the past few seasons, but the Ravens present a unique challenge. They vary their fronts, they change their tendencies and formations, and they do a lot of pre-snap movement.
These behaviors have been curbed to a degree with the departure of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan — whom Manning has had great success against — but the vestiges are still there, so it make take a few series for Manning and Tom Moore to properly diagnose what is going on prior to the snap.
Given their production over the past few seasons, Baltimore is off pace in getting to the quarterback, recording only 21 sacks thus far this season. But, San Francisco was able to confound Manning and his protection calls earlier this year. Though Kyle DeVan has replaced Mike Pollak, who was the major issue in that game, Charlie Johnson and Ryan Diem must stay alert and not allow Suggs or Johnson to pull an inside-out maneuver on them for an easy sack.
Lewis and Gooden are very active on the inside and cannot be ignored, either in the run game or the intermediate passing game over the middle. Lewis is particularly adept backpedaling, so Manning needs to be aware of where he is at all times in order to avoid an easy interception or pass defended in that area. Neither Suggs nor Johnson is especially adept in pass coverage, but neither player is a liability in that area.
The one truth that has been proven so far this season is that no 3-4 outside linebacker can handle Dallas Clark in man coverage. If Baltimore attempts to slide Johnson over to Clark in coverage, expect Manning to attack that matchup immediately to all depths.
The Ravens are giving up 9.7 yards per pass attempt to the short middle, as opposed to 4.78 and 4.93 yards per attempt to the short left and short right, respectively, so Manning and the Colts will attack that area with Clark and Austin Collie regardless of who lines up to cover either man.
Baltimore lost a great deal of their versatility at the linebacker position when Bart Scott departed via free agency in the offseason, as Scott was able to play inside or outside in the 3-4 or 4-3 and neither Gooden nor Johnson has the ability to play multiple positions in multiple formations, which takes away a great deal of the variety of looks that the Ravens can show Manning, which works to his advantage.
The Ravens currently rate as the 13th pass defense in terms of yards per game in the NFL, but that is partly as a result of the fact that Cleveland managed only 99 yards passing against them on Monday night. Without that game, they would rate in the bottom half of the league.
They are among the league leaders in passing yards per attempt to the short left and short right, but have given up 14.36 yards per attempt to the deep left, 10.46 yards per attempt to the deep middle, and 15.25 to the deep right.
Dominique Foxworth is at a disadvantage against Reggie Wayne, but every cornerback is at a disadvantage against Wayne if not given help. Dawan Landry is a talented safety and will help Foxworth, which leaves Fabian Washington against Pierre Garcon.
Safety Ed Reed is a roving safety and will help out wherever he is needed and will show up wherever a play needs to be made. He will no doubt assist Washington with Garcon, but Garcon has proven himself to be unreliable to this point. Garcon needs to step up, as Washington and Reed are exceptionally aggressive and will overcommit to routes. Garcon proved that he can run the slant-and-go efficiently against the Patriots in Week 10 and he will need to run many such routes effectively until the Ravens prove that they can stop it.
Garcon is the X-factor in this game, combined with Washington and Reed. Everyone knows that Wayne and Clark are talented players with the ability to make a difference in any given game.
As Anthony Gonzalez proved in 2007 and 2008 against this Ravens defense, it will be the X receiver that is the X-factor in this game. Can he step up? The success of the Indianapolis offense depends on it.
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