Saturday, October 11, 2008

Ravens-Colts Preview: Brand New Storylines for Old and New Baltimore

Throw out the old storylines. None of the players on this roster are particularly vested in the old Baltimore Colts; they are completely allied to the new Baltimore Ravens. They don’t feel the sting of losing the team, only the joy of having this one. The fans care about the crime the Irsays committed on this city back in 1984, not the players. The Ravens will be playing to remain relevant in the AFC North hunt, the Colts will be playing to claw back towards the top of the AFC South. Both teams will be intense in their determination not to fall under .500, but spare us the Baltimore Colts recaps. It has been done before, and as far as the players are concerned, it’s over.

What I’m Wondering:

Will Harbaugh’s endorsement of Flacco give him the confidence to turn things around?
Joe Flacco has not looked good in his last few starts, and it seems as though more and more teams have a better idea of how to attack and fluster the young Ravens quarterback. In the wake of Flacco’s 0 TD, 2 INT performance last week, Coach Harbaugh stated that the rookie is to remain the starter for the remainder of the season. This has two potential outcomes: Flacco is inspired, plays loose without fear for his job, and the Ravens succeed. Or… Flacco does not get much better as a result of Harbaugh’s comments and the Ravens are tied to a sinking ship as the division slips away. Will the quarterback do the former or the latter? In a rebuilding season, does it matter?

Did Indy’s comeback over Houston propel them to their old form?
Probably not, but that mistake-aided comeback could have given Peyton Manning and the Colts the confidence they need to play to the level they are capable of. Peyton has struggled to find his form this season, throwing an interception for every touchdown and generally seeming out of rhythm with his receivers, including his partner Marvin Harrison. The Colts have only won this season in last-second comeback fashion, and Peyton has yet to carry that 4th quarter prolific scoring into the 1st quarter of the next game. Will this be any different? Are the Colts finally ready to play?

Will the Ravens secondary be ready for the Colts receivers?
Shutting down the Titans’ receivers is one thing, shutting down the Colts’ threats is something quite different. With Fabian Washington and Samari Rolle out for tomorrow’s matchup, it will once again be up to Frank Walker to key in on Reggie Wayne and play reliable man-to-man coverage. Even more essential will be backup safety Jim Leonhard in preventing slot receiver Anthony Gonzalez and tight end Dallas Clark from exploiting the deep middle of the field, as Ed Reed will likely be more keyed in on the sideline receiver. Manning will be looking for easy throws to get into a rhythm early; it will be up to a set of backups to keep him off balance.

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

The Ravens Offense vs. the Colts Defense
Teams don’t seem to have much trouble scoring against Indy this season in any one of its contests so far this year- 29 to the Bears, 15 to Minnesota, 21 to Jacksonville and 27 to Houston. None of their opponents are known as high-powered offenses, yet almost all of them have found success against this Bob Sanders-less Indy Defense. Indianapolis has always had a fast defense; Sanders presents the hard hitter who can play all over the field and intimidate an opposing offense. Sure, Dwight Freeney frightens every quarterback, but he has always had trouble playing the run and needs to be backed up with safety help- help which has not been there this season. Indy ranks last in the league in run defense with an average of 188 yards racked up against them every week. Le’Ron McClain particularly should have success against their front seven if the runs are kept to the inside, forcing Indy to put bulk on bulk and neutralizing the speed of their linebacking corps.

Additionally, the Ravens will have an opportunity in the passing game to get something done (finally). With Marlin Jackson nicked up Derrick Mason could find some easy short routes open to move the chains on third down. However, despite Freeney’s injury he will be a force against Jared Gaither and could significantly hinder Flacco’s ability to hold onto the ball for a down-the-field strike. Forget the paltry 6 sacks on defense for Indy- remember that behind this inexperienced offensive line, combined with Flacco’s tendency to test how long he really can hold onto the ball, protection could quickly break down. When it does, Flacco’s legs won’t get him very far against this quick D. If the Ravens move the ball it will be on consistent, plodding drives- pushing back the defensive line and forcing more men into the box, wearing them down for the 4th quarter. It is an old Ravens model, but it should work.

The Ravens Defense vs. the Colts Offense
The Colts entered this season with a stable of running backs capable of changing the pace on any team and dominating the line of scrimmage. Joseph Addai had exemplary pass blocking and catching skills, Dominic Rhodes had a solid understanding of the offensive scheme and returned from Oakland as the veteran presence of the unit, Michael Hart emerged from the draft as a solid short-yardage back. So far this year, the Colts rank dead last in the NFL at 67.8 yards per game. Some of that might have to do with Manning’s struggles, but no team is regularly putting 8 in the box with Peyton under center, no matter what his statistics say. Honestly, I have no idea why the Colts are struggling so mightily on offense. Early on it was easy to claim a lack of repetitions in the preseason as a possible cause for Manning’s slow start, but 4 games into the season we have only seen glimpses of this offense clicking as it used to.

This might be the perfect time for the Ravens to exploit this. The running game will not be able to succeed against the Ravens front 7 with a rejuvenated Ray Lewis roving the middle of the field and leading a unit that ranks 1st in the NFL at only 66 yards per game allowed on the ground. It just won’t happen. However, Manning has had his 4 game equivalent of preseason work and has been able to make big plays down the middle of the field against the Ravens secondary in the past. It will be up to Rex Ryan to provide a variety of heavy blitzes to keep Manning on his back. Without the threat of the run game, he will be able to do so.

The Rundown
At this point in the season, I feel like I know who the Ravens are. It is a familiar model: get behind a young inexperienced quarterback, protect him with a strong running game and a stout defense that strikes fear into the heart of Chuck Norris. We have seen it since 2000 and this game won’t be much different. However, the Ravens’ previous matchups with the Colts have limited Peyton but the Ravens offense has not been able to get over the hump (see 15-6 loss in the playoffs a couple years back).

This game will come down to one factor. The Ravens can run the ball. The Colts can’t. In the end this comes down to a battle in the trenches that for the first time the Ravens will win hands-down. Without the threat of a run game and the Ravens’ ability to consistently move the chains (especially in the 4th quarter when the Colts front 7 will be worn down tremendously), the Colts will not be able to get enough possessions in the second half to mount a significant charge. The Ravens might not be able to come away with many touchdowns but they will be able to move the ball and get enough field goals to take it from the “old” Baltimore team.

The nod goes to the Ravens, 16-14

Photo Credit: (Baltimore Sun: Frank Lloyd)

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