Young Defense Stood Tall

The fans, media and coaches would have understood if a Ray Lewis and Michael McCrary-less defense didn't come to play on Sunday. In fact, they probably had the excuse notes already written up for the young guns to use.

You know, Lewis is the heart and sole of the defense, the best defensive player in the NFL. McCrary is a grizzled veteran who even after a number of knee surgeries, can still get after the quarterback pretty consistently. How can you replace these guys as players and leaders?

 

Forget that. Even with those guys in the lineup, how would this defense slow down the Colts' prolific offensive attack? How could the Ravens contain Manning, James, Harrison, Pollard and Ismail? I guess Ravens' defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and his defense knew something we didn't.

 

As the old saying goes, that's why they play the games. The Ravens' young defense held the Colts' magnetic offense to one touchdown and five field goals, in a losing cause. The run defense stymied Edgerrin James, holding him to slightly over 40-yards rushing (By the way, James is just another member of a fraternity of great running backs that hasn't topped the 100-yard mark for nearly three and a half years. Corey Dillon has the distinction of being the only back to dent the Ravens in that time span, rushing for over 100-yards in December of 2001. The beat keeps going.) and rendered him a non-factor in the passing game.

 

While he was able to gain 150-yards through the air, Marvin Harrison didn't make any big time catches over the top. Ditto for Ismail and Pollard, who bent the Ravens' green pass defense but didn't break them.

 

And then there was Mike Nolan's face-off with Peyton Manning, the Colts' franchise quarterback. Manning had an efficient game, throwing for close to 300-yards and hitting on 70% of his passes. But it wasn't easy.

 

Using an old ploy from his former defensive coachmate's (Bill Belichick) bag of tricks, Mike Nolan threw everything but the kitchen sink at the All-Pro QB. Nolan blitzed Manning, using five and six players at a time. He brought his rookie safeties, Ed Reed and Will Demps. He brought his linebackers too, moving them on both the left and right sides of the line and sometimes, he didn't need to bring an extra defender at the line of scrimmage at all.

 

Defensive tackles Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Kelly Gregg were able to penetrate straight through the gaps, flushing Manning out of the pocket. When Manning took off, they held their positions and didn't let him slip through their grasp too many times. The result: Five sacks and a plethora of hurries that threw off Manning's rhythm.

 

It even seemed that the franchise signal caller was flustered at times before snapping the ball. Nolan used different defensive fronts at the line of scrimmage all day long to get the Colts' QB thinking. There were a number of times when Manning either didn't know what kind of pass rush was coming on a particular play or he had the wrong play called against that particular defensive alignment altogether.

 

While Manning was able to make the necessary audibles when he had to, he wasn't very comfortable making those changes. And none of his audibles really resulted in the defense getting burned down the field anyway.

 

For that matter, the defense wasn't burned for any game breaking plays whatsoever. They haven't been thoroughly smoldered all season, which is remarkable considering how many times Nolan likes to blitz and how young the secondary really is.

 

Think about it now, the starting safeties are rookies. Yet, when it came right down to it, Reed and Demps didn't bite on Manning's textbook play-action fakes too many times. Cornerback Gary Baxter is practically a rookie too, as he is starting for the first time in his two-year career. He showed off his inexperience today, committing pass interference against Qadry Ismail on fourth down on the final drive of the game, which clinched the win for Indianapolis.

 

But he'll learn not to make that mistake again. Whatever other mistakes this defense makes the rest of the way will also be corrected given time.

 

With that said, you have to love how poised these players have been so early in the season, especially today.


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