Most important matchups
Here are what I think are the most important matchups in order of importance:
1. The Colts O-line vs. the Ravens complex blitz schemes. The Ravens don't have to get sacks, they need to get pressure. Manning, as much as any QB in the league, does not like to be pressured and is a shadow of himself when on the run. I think the most effective pressure will come from a variety of blitz schemes, and I don't think the Colts will be able to react to it with the crowd noise. My main fear for the Ravens here is the pass rush gets fatigued from long drives. As Merlin Olsen often mentions, there is nothing more tiring than rushing the QB.
2. Ray Lewis vs. the short receivers. Manning has been seemingly reluctant to throw long over the last 8 weeks or so. Using a high completion percentage with short passes, he has methodically moved the ball. Ray is not the run stuffer he once was, but he is still a hitter and a terrific pass defender. He needs to do what he does best, read the QB, tip some footballs, deliver 1 or more bone jarring hit, and create alligator arms in their short game. He has a career full of big-game results when asked to do exactly this. Peyton converts 3rd downswith the short pass. We will have a lot riding on all those 3rd and 3-6 yard plays, and we need to keep our D fresh.
3. Ravens LT vs. Dwight Freeney. Whether it is Ogden or Terry, this is both a passing and rushing matchup. When passing, Freeney is a speed rusher who either LT needs to push to the outside. McNair has tremendous pocket awareness, steps up into a tight pocket well, and has an ability to get rid of the ball while being hit that is the best of any Raven in their history. On the rush, I hope we run some draws. Freeney has so many pass rush moves that he auto-pancakes (or simply runs himself out of the play) on a lot of plays. If you recall what Terrell Suggs looked like as a rookie, that's Dwight Freeney. McNair also should be able to take advantage of agressiveness from Freeney. Neutralizing Freeney's pass rush would be good, but the Ravens really need to do better than that and exploit him in the running game.
4. Downhill running vs. the Colts small linebackers. I firmly believe we should be passing to set up the run in this game. But most of the damage to the Colts has been done right up the gut this season. Jax in particular did nothing fancy at all and averaged 8.9 YPC. The Colt LB's, particularly Brackett are smallish, and their inneffectiveness vs. the run has taken away their willingness to rush the passer with anyone other than the D-Line. Jamal is, of course, our biggest offensive liability, but we need to mix him in to control the tempo of the game and keep the Colts offense off the field. If there was ever a case to use a running back by committee system, this could be it. I would be tempted to start Mike Anderson, running from the I and give McNair 5 good receiving options. Jamal could play either every other series or the 2nd and 4th quarters, or how about this...on the 5th and greater plays of all drives. That strategy was tremendously effective for Joe Gibbs (Ricky Earvins), and I think the Colts would dread a fresh Jamal coming in when their defense is tired.
5. TE coverage schemes. Dallas Clark is dangerous, but he will likely be matched up in press coverage with AD. He needs to be physical, and this is one of the complexities to the pass rush that can be effective. AD can essentially feign press coverage and come on a delay, possibly with a stunt. He has been very effective all year doing just that. When Clark does slip off the line, we can't lose track of him, which is going to put Jarret Johnson, Bart Scott, and possibly Terrell Suggs on the spot.
6. Demetrius Williams and Mark Clayton vs. the Colts secondary. The Ravens need to show a willingness to stretch the field to keep the Colts out of the box. Clayton and Williams are our principle deep threats, and they will be matched up with corners that are more physical than fast. McNair is a fast reader, the essential ingredient to being a good play-action passer. Effective play action (safeties biting) will mean we have some 1 on 1 matchups which the Ravens need to seek to exploit.
Re: Most important matchups
Great Post, Filmstudy.
I sincerely hope Jamal Lewis has the game of his life. Long drives are the secret to this game because its keeps Manning off the field and our defense gets lots of rest. It sounds simple, but it works.