The Baltimore Ravens thrive on staying under the radar, while a team like the New England Patriots siphons all of the media hype for their opponent on Sunday. While the rest of the NFL is talking about Bill Belichick coaching decisions, or comparing Peyton Manning to Tom Brady, the Ravens have been hustling at home in Baltimore preparing to shock an undefeated Colts team, intent to yet again strike revenge on the franchise that left their city 25 years ago.
If the Colts hope to beat down the Ravens on their turf, again controlling the series and building on the solid win last year, the following players will need to step up their game and make an impact.
1. G Kyle DeVan: Against Houston two weeks ago, Kyle DeVan took over the starting right guard spot from former second-round draft pick Mike Pollak, and it was DeVan in the starting lineup again against New England. In that game, he helped the Colts produce relatively strong situational running yards and did not seem to make as many mistakes in pass protection as Pollak made in previous games.
This matchup could leave him lining up across from Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, which could be an even more demanding task than Vince Wilfork was on Sunday night. Ngata has been banged up throughout practice this week leading up to the game, but is not listed as out and should he play, will demand a lot of attention from DeVan to keep Manning's jersey clean and open running lanes for Donald Brown and Joseph Addai.
If the Colts fail to control the line of scrimmage offensively, it is likely that the offense will continue to struggle. If the line holds and begins to show signs of coming together with a solid starting group, the offense may come back to life and put up some impressive numbers.
What is important about this game, for Manning, is that he begin to show that he and his receivers are back on the same page out on the field. Although Manning has had to deal with greater pressure from opponents over the last three games, a lack of timing and direction with his receivers has popped up in each of those games as well.
It could go a long way to allay concerns about the efficiency of the Colts passing game, not just in this game but for the remainder of the season.
3. TE Dallas Clark: Against the Patriots, Dallas Clark was limited to four receptions for 65 yards. Now, for most tight ends in the NFL, that is a solid day of production. For Clark, this year, that is a pretty slow day.
Fans should not be concerned that the New England game gave any sign of Clark losing his effectiveness. To the contrary, Clark demanded so much attention from the Patriots secondary that it allowed Manning to pick the defense apart when it mattered most, late in the game.
What Clark does this week could make headlines, however, because Ed Reed is one of the best pass defending safeties in the NFL, and can give any quarterback or receiver fits. If Reed lines up one-on-one with Clark, that could leave Reggie Wayne in a favorable matchup. If Reed does not line up with Clark, with linebacker Terrell Suggs projected to be out of the game, who pulls the responsibility will be worth watching.
Whether Clark reels in the catches and picks up the yards, or another Colts' receiver does so, the attention Clark demands will play a big part in the Colts passing offense in Baltimore.
4. LB Philip Wheeler: Philip Wheeler has been plugged into the Colts starting defensive lineup in place of Tyjuan Hagler, who was placed on injured reserved prior to the Houston game two weekends ago. Against Houston he did not make much of an impact, and did make his share of mistakes. Mistakes are expected, of course, out of a young player who is getting his first significant time on defense.
That said, Wheeler did make an important play against New England, forcing a Laurence Maroney fumble on the Colts goal-line, which was recovered by Gary Brackett and kept the game within reach. Wheeler will need to do more than just place his helmet in the right place at the right time on one play to show that he is capable of filling the strong-side linebacker spot in the NFL.
In this game, Wheeler needs to show gap discipline, solid tackling, and start to make his presence felt a bit louder and more often. If Wheeler fails to develop into the position quickly it could leave the Colts weak on the second-level of defense, or it could open the door for Freddy Keiaho, Ramon Humber, or another player on the Colts roster to earn their opportunity.
5. The "Next Man Up": The other player to watch will likely be a backup who is stepping into a more active role for the first time this year. It is possible that safety Antoine Bethea either will not play or will be limited in action, leaving Jamie Silva to play a significant role on defense. Tight end Gijon Robinson could be limited or not dress on Sunday, leaving Jacob Tamme and Tom Santi to be a more active part of the offensive rotation.
If defensive tackle Eric Foster is limited in the defensive line rotation, rookie Fili Moala could play a more significant role. Even wide receiver Pierre Garcon has been dealing with an ankle injury that could limit him, or become irritated during the course of the game, requiring Hank Baskett to play with the starting offense.
Should any of these players miss, or any of the players who have not seen much time with the starting offense or defense this year be asked to step up, they could have the biggest impact in holding the team's synergy together for another victory.
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