1) Pass in running situations; run in passing situations: For years, the book on the Colts has been to run the ball right at them. Even during the ‘06 season, in which Indianapolis won the Super Bowl, the unit was dead last in the league against the run. But against Baltimore, it has been a different story. Since 2005, the Colts have limited Baltimore to 309 yards on 92 attempts, for an average of 3.3 yards per carry.
The Colts’ formula has been the same during this quasi-rivalry. Create a couple of three-and-outs on defense; give the ball back to Manning; grab an early lead; and force the Ravens to play catch-up. Baltimore has fallen into this trap every time, and a big reason is because they have attempted to begin games by pounding the ball out of power formations. Indianapolis committed all of its resources to stopping the run every time.
This time around, the Ravens have to be less predictable, and back the Colts on their heels. The key is to run out of predominant passing formations and to pass out of predominant running formations as much as possible.
For example, running the ball out of spread formations would be one way to vary the looks that the Colts have seen from the Baltimore offense. By staying in a spread formation, the Ravens would also have the chance to throw the ball against the Indianapolis base secondary, which has been reeling the last two weeks.
And when the Ravens take their shots downfield, they should operate out of a power set. Overall, the offense needs to dictate the tempo, instead of being shoved around.
2) Spray to Ray Rice: This matchup has Rice’s name written all over it. The second-year back is the perfect antidote to defeat a fast, zone defense.
First and foremost, Rice has mastered the ability to run the draw play. Against the pass-rushing duo of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, the draw play could prove devastating when the rushers get too far up field and vacate their spots.
In addition, Rice could be a zone buster. Against a zone scheme, there is some space off the edges and in the middle, in front of the linebackers, for a tailback to navigate. Rice has the ability to break tackles and turn the dump-offs, flare routes, and circle routes into big gains. He will have to be terrific after the catch against the Colts on Sunday.
3) Open the windows: With green cornerbacks patrolling the back end, the New England Patriots took to the air against Indianapolis. Quarterback Tom Brady tested the defensive backs by using the play-action passing game on first down. Time and time again, Brady was able to manipulate defenders out of position, and find his one-on-matchups downfield.
Play-action should also be a huge part of the Baltimore passing game. Quarterback Joe Flacco will need to sell an effective fake to open up the cover two shell. When he does use the run-fake, he will need to step up in the pocket to avoid the outside rush.
1) Four or five rushers: The key to winning on the defensive side of the ball could come down to how well the Ravens pressure Peyton Manning without having to blitz. It will be a tougher task given the loss of Terrell Suggs. Still, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will have to find a way to be creative with his rush package to compensate for Suggs.
Step one would be to dust off Jameel McClain and reinsert him at the outside linebacker spot. As an edge rusher, McClain flourished a year ago. Conversely, he has floundered on the inside this season. He has to be a part of the sub package pass rush on Sunday.
Overall, the nickel and dime package has to be a faster group up front. The speed rush package should consist of players who can turn the corner, and have the ability to drop and bluff the blitz. That means that linemen such as Dwan Edwards and Kelly Gregg should see less playing time, and tweeners such as Antwan Barnes, Jarret Johnson (who you might see in Suggs’ role), Paul Kruger and McClain should be on the field.
With linebackers on the field, the Ravens will have ability to show more multiple looks, and match the Colts’ offensive speed.
2) Change coverages: Not only is it imperative for Mattison to show different fronts, but it is equally important that he plays a mix of coverages. If Manning gets comfortable operating against a certain coverage scheme, it will be a long day for the secondary.
Against the Browns, Ed Reed moved around a lot before the ball was snapped to bait Brady Quinn into making the wrong pre-snap read. Now, Manning is not Quinn, but the approach should be the same with the pre-snap movement. If Manning is held up for even a half second longer because he misreads the coverage, the timing of the pass play will be disrupted.
Not only do the safeties have to shift around, but the corners should also go back-and-forth between playing off and playing on the line. More times than not though, the defensive backs should attempt to jam and play physical with the receivers to throw off their timing. Pre-snap movement by the defense could also create confusion for the Colts’ young receivers and that could disrupt their timing routes, a staple of Manning’s.
3) Checking the dynamic duo: Defending Clark is always a tricky proposition. Most linebackers and even safeties lack the speed to stay stride-for-stride with the Pro Bowl pass catcher. Clark is especially tough to deal with over the middle.
The best approach to handling Clark is to double team him from the nickel package using the strongside (SAM) linebacker and the strong safety. Moreover, before Clark releases into his route, he must be bumped. If Clark gets a free release, he will have too much speed to run past the defense in the open field.
With a strong safety shaded to Clark’s side, and the free safety supporting the cornerback on Reggie Wayne’s side, there will be one-on-one opportunities for receivers Austin Collie and Piere Garcon to exploit. The coverage will have to hold up in the situations.