Baltimore Ravens' scouting report

NICKEL PACKAGE 1. How will the Baltimore Ravens slow down Peyton Manning? It's the pivotal question surrounding tonight's AFC divisional playoff game between the sixth-seeded Ravens (10-7) and the top-seeded Indianapolis Colts (14-2) at Lucas Oil Stadium. Manning is the NFL Most Valuable Player for a fourth time, setting a record.

And he's expected to lead the Colts into this pivotal showdown after being intercepted twice with one touchdown and 299 passing yards during a 17-15 Colts win earlier this season in Baltimore.

Even though Manning has beaten the Ravens seven times in a row, the Colts have lost their first playoff game in six of nine appearances since his arrival in 1998. The proverbial chess match unfolds once again between Manning and Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis and free safety Ed Reed. In a noisy dome, Lewis and Reed will try to match wits with Manning one more time. It's essentially a guessing game since both sides are known for their false audibles. The Ravens will need to generate some blitz pressure to disrupt Manning.

2. Will the Ravens be able to sustain their running game?
One playoff game removed from running roughshod over the New England Patriots with 234 rushing yards and four touchdown runs during a 33-14 win, the Ravens are hoping to impose their will on the Colts' undersized front seven. The Colts rank 24th against the run and might need to crowd the line of scrimmage with safety Melvin Bullitt to slow down the Ravens' prolific running game. Ray Rice will be looking to exploit a Colts run defense that allowed 4.3 yards per carry and 126.5 rushing yards per contest during the regular season. A physical Ravens offensive line could be the key to the game.

3. Will Joe Flacco be able to keep the Colts honest?
If the Colts shut down the run, that could put some pressure on the Ravens' quarterback to fire the ball downfield. Not listed on the injury report despite limping noticeably due to a hip contusion, Flacco only threw 10 passes, completing four for 34 yards against the Patriots. It's likely that he was capable of doing more considering the Ravens built such a commanding lead. It's imperative that the Ravens pass protect effectively against speed rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Otherwise, they could change the complexion of the game.

4. Will the Ravens be able to jump out early?
The Ravens raced to a 24-0 first quarter lead over the Patriots. They need to operate in a similar manner to hurt the Colts' confidence. The Ravens nearly beat the Colts earlier this season. They'll need to be much more effective in the red zone this time to get the job done.

5. Who will win the turnover battle?
The Colts have won 25 consecutive regular-season games when they haven't turned the ball over. That streak includes four wins over the capitalistic Ravens. They managed to win the first game despite three turnovers. If the Ravens are able to generate big plays and take away deep strikes from Manning to Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Pierre Garcon, then they could force the issue and take control of the game.

 KEY MATCHUP
Baltimore Ravens DT Haloti Ngata and NG Kelly Gregg versus Indianapolis Colts C Jeff Saturday

The Ravens feature two powerful interior defensive linemen. Both are active and aggressive and capable of collapsing the pocket or shooting a gap on occasion. Neither is on the injury report this week and are presumably close to 100 percent. Between them, they build a wall in the middle of the defense. Ngata is bigger and more athletic. Gregg has superior strength and plays with outstanding leverage. The Colts counter with Saturday, one of the top centers in the NFL. He's extremely quick and adept at peeling off one block to get downfield to the linebackers. His strong suit is pass protection. Because he's smaller than Ngata and Gregg, he may have some issues getting any movement as a run blocker.

KEY MATCHUP
Indianapolis Colts TE Dallas Clark vs. Baltimore Ravens DBs Ed Reed and Dawan Landry

Clark is extremely dangerous, catching 100 passes for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns as he was selected to his first Pro Bowl. For his career, he has caught 356 passes for 4,188 yards and 80 touchdowns. He has emerged as arguably Peyton Manning's favorite target. Clark excels at running crossing routes from short to intermediate ranges, but he can also operate far downfield with his ability to separate from defensive backs. He's an imposing red-zone target, too. The Ravens will have Reed, a dynamic playmaker, keep an eye on Clark on the deep routes. Reed is an instinctive gambling presence who is an expert at reading quarterbacks' eyes. And it will be Landry's responsibility to collision him and prevent him from exploiting the Ravens for first downs. Landry is big, strong and fast enough to compete with Clark.

THREE DOWNS WITH ...
Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis

1. On taking on Peyton Manning one week after beating Tom Brady: "Once we got in the playoffs we kind of knew the road that we were going to take. And what other road is there to take when you go from probably two of the best quarterbacks of the last decade and things like that?   

"So, the challenge is going to remain the challenge, really. Those guys are always playing at a high level. Peyton always has his team playing at a high level. So, it's going to be a big challenge for us this week."  

2. On defensive coordinator Greg Mattison: "I think the adjustment, definitely for him, came easy because last year being under Rex Ryan he was our linebacker coach. So, he kind of knew the vibe of how we work and how we talk to each other. That kind of started when he first got here, so that carried over. I think it just carried right over."  

3. On John Harbaugh's vision: "I think what he does is he lays out the plan for you, which makes it simple to flow through. When you don't know kind of what's going on, you're kind of up and down. But when you kind of lay out the vision where we want to go, and the bottom line was just get in the playoffs, and you lay out how we're going to do it and why we're going to work this way and why we're going to work that way, I think the guys definitely understood where coach was coming from, and that's why I think the transition for us once he gave us the vision actually flowed smoothly."  

THREE DOWNS WITH ... 
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning

1. On the rust factor: "Well, obviously every player has different ways of getting themselves ready to play, but as a team, I felt like we had good work last week. I thought we had intense practices and focus on the field, and I think it's important this week to have that same attitude. I think the key to playing well on Saturday is what we do this week in practice. You know, you can talk about it all you want, but you have to go out there and do it during practice to be on the details. It's a very difficult team to prepare for. They're very talented, and certainly, mentally, it's a challenge, and I think the key is excellent preparation and on-the-field work."

2. On the Ravens' defensive improvement: "Well, I thought they were pretty formidable the first time we played them. Every time I've played them, I think they've been a tough opponent. They have excellent players, certainly a lot of guys that have been there for a number of years. Certainly, they have some new faces, but even their new faces, those guys are experienced because of where they are at this point in the season. They've played a lot of games, and they've been in a lot of different situations."

3. On the Colts' seven-game winning streak over Baltimore: "You know, once again, kind of like this season, I feel like while you can draw an experience from previous games. Every game presents its own identity, and certainly, when you're talking about playing against the Ravens, you're talking about a lot of different years, you're talking about different coordinators ago, a lot of players that aren't even there anymore. So, every game and every year certainly has its own identity, and it's going to be a tough game here in Indy on Saturday. We know that, but it'll be two really good teams playing against each other."


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