It's an intellectual game within the game as Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning act as conductors of their own separate orchestras today at Lucas Oil Stadium.
As the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year maneuvers his defense and tries to anticipate and interpret Manning's actions, real and fake, the eight-time Pro Bowl passer is watching Lewis. Watching, listening and acting as the Colts (2-2) take on the Ravens (2-2) in a matchup of two teams on the brink of either springboarding their seasons or falling backward.
"It's the ultimate chess match," Lewis said. "So when he walks up there, I might just say something like, 'All right now, you better hurry up with that play clock going. But it's not anything like overdrawn where I have a conversation with him. I'm really most of the time trying to listen to t he little checks, what dummy calls are real, what are not real, things like that.
"He comes up to the line, he's trying to put his players in the right position. I'm trying to make sure mine are in the right position. I just think it's great because he studies the game very well. I study the game very well. You just kind of get two brains going."
As much as Manning tends to yell out a variety of words, some of which have meaning and some of which are just noise, Lewis offers his rebuttal by predicting what the ensuing snap will bring. His percentage compared to other defensive captains is pretty high, according to Manning and center Jeff Saturday.
"He's a great physical specimen, but his mental preparation is impressive," Manning said. "I'm not saying he's 100 percent on calling our plays out. He's called them out when I've kind of smiled, going, 'That's not it.' There's many a time when I've heard Ray calling out our plays, and he's been pretty accurate at times.
"But Jeff Saturday can tell you also his instincts allow him to beat the blocker to the ball if he gets a feel that it's going one way or the other. It's a tribute to him. Part of it's natural and can't be taught, but part of it is the way he studies and what he sees and takes from the film room to the practice field to the playing field."
Lewis is convinced he's got an innate feel for Manning's true intentions, a knack for diagnosis that relies upon gut instincts and long hours studying the quarterback.
It hasn't paid dividends in terms of victories, though, for the Ravens, who have lost five consecutive games to the Colts, including last year's 44-20 debacle and a 15-6 AFC divisional playoff loss two seasons ago.
"I've got a nice beat on it," Lewis said. "I won't give it all away. I've got a nice beat on just how to play against him and how to get my people in position. That's why the games are so good because, at the end, it just comes down to making a play, bottom line, not really scheming where you trick somebody.
"I don't know what percentages are, but the bottom line is what you deal with is that play. You try to remember this, remember that, see what's real and what's not real, and then the next couple of plays, or the third or fourth quarter, then you don't fall for the same things because if you don't, Peyton knows every coverage."
Lewis is on top of his game again, and Manning is beginning to regain his form after a slow start to the season due to having an infected bursa sac in his left knee that was removed during the preseason and a makeshift offensive line.
In six regular-season games against Baltimore, Manning has thrown 13 touchdown passes and averaged 283 yar ds per contest. Conversely, Lewis has 74 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery against the Colts.
Asked what sets Manning apart, defensive coordinator Rex Ryan replied: "Brains, he's smart. He's poised and probably handles the pocket as well as any quarterback in the league. He's not going to win a 40-yard dash, but he's got a great feel. He and Tom Brady are about as good as anybody, and they'll have that great pocket awareness. He's tough. He can make all the throws. Other than that, he's just a guy."
This game will take on a different tenor for the Ravens after squaring off with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Tennessee Titans in consecutive losses as they take on the Colts, who have yet to win at their new stadium and have lost their past four home games dating back to last season.
"It isn't going to be the physical game it's been the last two weeks," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I would rather grind your 11 up against our 11 and go play football. Not too many teams can do that with us.
"I think Peyton knows that. They're going to go out there and try to finesse us, try to put the ball deep. We've got to show up or we fall below .500, and that's not where you want to go."
This matchup could be even more pivotal than usual against the Ravens' top-ranked pass defense that has limited quarterbacks to a 46.2 percent completion rate with seven interceptions and allowed just three touchdown passes.
However, the Ravens will be missing cornerback Samari Rolle (neck surgery), Fabian Washington (dislocated right shoulder) and strong safety Dawan Landry (spinal cord concussion). Baltimore is 0-3 all-time in Indianapolis.
In this latest clash, the action prior to the snap may rival what happens afterward. Manning's stalling at the line can also trigger impatience.
"Peyton's got to do his little games at the line and dummy calls," Suggs said. "It's like, 'OK, null, when you're ready to play football, we'll play.' We know it's coming."
Chess match afoot between Lewis, Manning
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