Eyes in the Backfield: Ravens

12 Things to Watch For in Sunday's Colts-RavensGame

Ray's already planning some post-retirement relaxation

Last week the Colts got revenge on the Texans and doomed their bid for the first seed in the AFC. After earning the fifth seed and completing a remarkable single-season turnaround the Colts now face a familiar foe: the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens enter the playoffs in an unusual spot: a suspect defense now depends on an offense to bail them out. Can the Colts continue their unlikely march to the Super Bowl? Here's a few things to keep an eye on as we try to answer that question:

1. Watch for Vick Ballard. The rookie has performed admirably in place of Donald Brown, improving his blocking along the way and running with authority. The Ravens are tough in the red zone, first overall in the league, but very shaky leading up to that point. Ballard can take advantage of 20th ranked rushing defense.

2. Watch for the story-that-isn't-really-a-story. Bob Irsay…blah, blah…drunk…blah, blah…Mayflower. We get it. The Colts spent 30 years in Baltimore and have now spent 29 seasons in Indianapolis. Petty nature among a group of people in Baltimore prevents the media from moving on to real news. Instead they'll march out the same tired story that we all know. In fact, the men playing on the field know little about the real history nor do they care more for that than they do winning. There will be a day this is a non-issue. Sadly, this Sunday isn't that day.

3. Watch for ChuckStrong. Chuck Pagano's triumphant return from cancer has sparked the team but he's more than a rallying cry for this young team. Pagano will bring an intimate knowledge of the Ravens defense, a unit he coached for four years before joining the Colts. Pagano is wily, described as some within the building as "fiery" and will likely use that motivation along with his knowledge of the Ravens to get this offense in gear.

4. Watch for rookie exaggerations. If there's one thing that we can be sure of every postseason, it's that media will put far more value on quarterbacks' playoff performances than necessary. If a quarterback plays well and/or leads his team to a victory or two, he's labeled with a myriad of meaningless yet magical words like "clutch," "winner," etc. With three rookie quarterbacks in the playoffs this weekend, the media is salivating to crown the next quarterback who "just wins" and has "ice water in his veins."

5. Watch for the rope-a-dope. Ray Lewis is returning after missing ten games due to a triceps injury. Don't buy into the hype just yet. He may not play much or could play the entire game. He'll be on the gameday roster but coach John Harbaugh is saavy and will use Lewis as a strategic chip until he must reveal his plans. Lewis was a full participant in practice on Wednesday and likely will play. To what degree and in what role he'll be used will be a gameday decision. The Colts will be forced to prepare for the scenario either way.

6.Watch for teary-eyed soliloquies. Ray Lewis is retiring. He's a great player, possibly one of the greatest. He's certainly the prototypical linebacker of his generation. Expect the TV crews to wax poetic about Lewis, describing his epic acts of heroism and his unparalleled love of the game. It may induce vomiting but it's going to happen. I suggest a drinking game: every time someone gushes about Lewis have a swig. It may make the afternoon more tolerable.

7. Watch for fullback troubles. Vonta Leach used to kill the Colts in Houston, and he may well do it again on Sunday. Leach was Pro Football Focus' top graded fullback, by a large margin, and is the AFC starter at the position. The Colts' inside linebackers have struggled to get off their blocks at times throughout the season, and if they allow Leach to come at them with a full head of steam, it's going to be a long day. 

8. Watch for injured offensive lines. The Colts will be missing Joe Reitz at left guard due to a concussion, so it will likely be Jeff Linkenbach in his place. Linkenbach has actually been decent at guard this season, while his time at right tackle was a complete mess. Samson Satele, on the other hand, may return, taking over the center position from A.Q. Shipley. But the more meaningful injury is Baltimore's RG Marshal Yanda. Yanda received a "serious" high-ankle sprain in Week 14, and sat out in Week 15 and 17. He says he is going to be 100%, but if he's not, it would be a huge blow to the Baltimore offensive line.

9. Watch for Ray Rice. Rice is the Ravens only true weapon. No, Joe Flacco, despite having a cannon arm, is not a weapon. This was supposed to be Flacco's big year, but he's been below average by most dependable measurables. Rice, on the other hand, is still one of the top 10 backs in football, despite being used less over the second half of the season. The Colts' defense? Worst in the league against the run. They'll need to slow down Rice, like they did Foster last week, if they're looking for an upset.

10. Watch for the "other" targets. The Ravens' big names in the receiving corps are Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, but I'm more interested in another couple of names: Jacoby Jones and tight end Dennis Pitta. The Colts' defense has been 31st against #3/4 receivers and 30th against tight ends this season. Meanwhile, Pitta has had a decent year, but Jones has had his struggles. If there's ever a defense to have a big game against, it would be this one.

11. Watch for regression. The Colts' free agent acquisitions of Samson Satele and Tom Zbikowski started for most of the season, but have been hurt the last few weeks, allowing A.Q. Shipley and Joe Lefeged to start in their place. They've performed better than the starters by any measurable that I've seen. Shipley is rated 16th among centers by PFF, while Satele is in the bottom five. Lefeged was ranked 16 spots higher than Zbikowski by the same grades, and was miles better in both run stop percentage and tackling efficiency. If the two veterans are healthy and start on Sunday, the Colts may actually be worse off.

12. Watch for the unlikely win. The Colts are red hot while the Ravens are not. Joe Flacco will need his superhero underoos to pull this one off as the Ravens defense simply isn't up to the task of topping Andrew Luck and the suddenly solid run game. It'll be a tight contest and easily could swing the other way but in the end I expect the Colts to pull off an upset and live to fight another day. Colts 24 Ravens 21.

Kyle J. Rodriguez

About Kyle J. Rodriguez

A film and numbers guru, Kyle writes about the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for Bleacher Report, Draft Mecca and The Football Educator, and is a co-founder and associate editor of Colts Authority. Kyle also is a high school sports reporter for the MLive Media Group in Michigan, covering high school sports across the state.

Eyes in the Backfield-Ravens

Six Things to Watch for in Sunday’s Colts Ravens Game

Orlovsky is going to have to worry about sacks this week.

Last week the Colts beat expectations (and the spread), but ultimately still lost their 12th straight game. This week, it’s another rivalry game with the Ravens. Assuming you still tune in on Sundays, here’s what to watch for:

1. Watch for sacks. The Ravens lead the NFL in adjusted sack percentage. Dan Orlovsky has taken 4 sacks in just 62 drop backs, the worst rate of any of the Colts’ QBs. It’s bad, bad combination. Just a couple of weeks ago, Baltimore took down Alex Smith 9 times in a game. They’ll be looking for that kind of number on Sunday. The biggest knock on Orlovsky has always been a complete lack of pocket awareness. If the Colts can keep him upright, then he’ll have a chance to complete some passes. The Ravens will be looking to cause multiple sack fumbles on Sunday, however. The result could be a multi-turnover game for Orlovsky that many will blame on the offensive line.

2. Watch the king of average. Joe Flacco burst on to the scene with a respectable rookie year in which the Ravens went 11-5 and he had a rating of 80.3. Now in his fourth season, Flacco has a rating of 78.3. He’s just never developed. He has career lows in completion % and YPA. His interception rate is at its lowest point, but so are his touchdowns. Flacco’s + ratings have always hovered around league average, but now he’s below the 100 mark in most of the major indicators. When trying to imagine what the 2011 Colts would look like with average QB play, imagine Joe Flacco running the team. I’d say they win probably 6 games.

3. Watch the names on the back of the jerseys. You’ll have to if you want to know who is playing defense for the Colts. Once again, the Colts are among the most injured teams in football. Honestly, I’ve lost track of who is playing in the secondary or line at this point. This unit actually played pretty well for a few games early in the year, but since then it’s been a tidal wave injuries, and the result is mess. At this point I don’t even have much to say about it. This is the fifth straight year that Indy has had one of the most injured defenses in the game. Bob Sanders is gone, but the bandages are still around. I hurt myself just typing about it.

4. Watch for angst. The Baltimore fans are angst ridden about something. I’m not even sure what anymore. Colts fans are fairly content to get the top pick, but really don’t want to go 0-16. The Colts wideouts are worried about their futures. The defense is worried about surviving. The Ravens are worried about winning the division. CBS is worried about ratings. John Harbaugh is worried about being the least famous coach in his own family. Jim Caldwell is worried about punting. I’m worried about how to come up with 5 things to say about this game. You are worried I’m never going to end this paragraph.

5. Watch the true deep threat. Torrey Smith has just 32 catches on the year. That’s less than 3 a game. The thing is that they go for 20 yards a pop. Smith is an incredible weapon, and won the Colts have to be aware of at all times. He’s the perfect example of why catch rate is a contextual stat. His catch rate is only 50%, which isn’t awesome, but when you do it on 20+ yards a catch, there’s no problem at all.

6. Watch for payback. The Baltimore fans get their long awaited revenge. For the first time in many, many years, the Colts will lose in Baltimore 31-3. The Baltimore throng will be thrilled, at least until the next time Indy comes to down and curb stomps them.

Eyes in the Backfield-Ravens

18 Things to Watch for in this Sunday’s Colts/Ravens Game

Yeah, I don’t think this qualifies as a ‘rivalry’

Last week’s game was one of the greatest of all time.  This week’s game?  Well, it should be pretty solid in its own way.  Indy travels to Baltimore to take on the Ravens in a matchup of preseason favorites in the AFC.  Indy, of course, is off to a 9-0 start.  The Ravens?  They are really glad they’ve played Cleveland twice.  They currently sit at 5-4 and desperately need to win this game at home on Sunday to stay in a tough AFC playoff race that might just require 11 wins to take a Wild Card slot.  Make sure you watch for:

1.  Watch the myth of the 3-4.  The next time someone says, “Peyton Manning struggles against the 3-4”, bring up the Baltimore Ravens.  In his career, he’s 5-2 in the regular season against the Ravens with 64.3% passing for 16 TDs, 3 picks and a rating of 106.2.  He’s never posted a rating lower than 80 against them, has been over 90 six times in seven games, and passed 100 three times.  Manning has no inherent problem with the 3-4 as a scheme.

2.  Watch the run.  The Ravens are strong running team with Ray Rice who is 2nd in DVOA and success rate.  The Colts have been credible against the run this year despite playing 4 teams in FO’s top 10 (Jax 1, Miami 5, Ten 7, NE 8).  The Ravens are 4th in running and very good in power situations and up the middle.  This is a major test for the Colts’ D line.  If they can contain Rice, it will be a positive sign for the rest of the year.

3.  Watch for points.  Indy still fields the #1 scoring D in football, but it will be put to the test again this week against the Ravens.  Baltimore can put points up in bunches, and has scored over 30 points in 4 of their 5 wins.  This isn’t the old Ravens team that won games 17-9.  Indy gave up big points to the Pats in the first half, but tightened things down.  Ironically, the Ravens best chance to beat the Colts is probably to get into a shoot out with them like New England did.  The Ravens are 5th in scoring defense (17 points a game), but that number is boosted by playing one of the worst offenses in history twice in 9 games.  Take out the Browns (3 points allowed in two games) and the Ravens PPG jumps to 21.5.  This game could make the scoreboard turn.

4. Watch for leaps and bounds.  When last we saw Joe Flacco, he looked like a deer in the headlights.  Since getting crushed by the Colts, he’s taken his game to a new level.  In his last 20 games since throwing 3 picks to the Colts, the Ravens are 14-6 and Flacco has thrown 25 TDs to 12 picks and a rating of 90.5.  He now seems to have passed 2008 rookie of the year Matt Ryan in ever possible way.  The Ravens have clearly found a QB for the first time in franchise history.  Considering how successful a franchise it has been, that is mind blowing.

5.  Watch for a step backwards.  The Colts running game has become more palatable in recent weeks as Joe Addai has been subtly effective carrying the ball.  The Ravens however are a stingy run D and are in the top 5 both conventionally and by FO’s rankings.  The Colts have shown a willing to go with what works this season, so don’t be surprised to see them abandon the run if it doesn’t generate much room early on.  This could well be the best running defense Indy plays the rest of the year, so don’t freak out if Manning decides to pass 50 times.

6.  Watch the screen.  The Ravens leader receiver (by catches) is their leading rusher.  Ray Rice does it all, and already has 49 catches on the season.  He’s on pace for 87 on the year.  How many is 87?  Reggie Wayne has passed that number only once in his career.  Indy has been good against RBs catching the ball this year (5th in the NFL in DVOA verses RBs catching), so this game could hinge on whether the Colts allow Rice to consistently make good yardage receiving.

7.  Watch the Dynamic Duo.  Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark have a combined 133 catches, the most in the NFL by a tandem this year.  They are on pace to break the all time record for most catches by teammates.  They are 1st and 2nd in the NFL in catches and 2nd and 5th in yards.  They are the Indy offense right now.  Both players seem to be hitting new highs and could not be playing better.  If the Ravens can’t contain Wayne and Clark, they can’t beat the Colts.

8.  Watch the sidekick.  The Colts must get more production from Pierre Garcon.  His catch rate fell to a miserable 47% after last week’s game.  Considering that Manning is completing nearly 70% of his passes, the fact that Garcon is catching less than half the throws aimed at him should be alarming.  He’s not getting separation and even when he does, he’s not hauling in enough balls.  Feel good time is over, Frenchy.  It’s time for production.  You get the feeling that if his play doesn’t improve quickly, Manning will be forced to start ignoring him.

9.  Watch the scorned kicker.  The Ravens just cut their place kicker months after refusing to invite Matt Stover to camp.  Stover doesn’t have a big leg, but is 6 for 6 with the Colts this year.  Baltimore has to rooting for Vinatieri to come back soon so the Colts can cut Stover, so they can pick him back up.  Ironically, if Stover hits a game winning field goal against the Ravens, he could potentially be helping to keep himself out of the playoffs.  Of course, if he thinks ahead and misses the game winning kick, the Ravens might never sign him at all.  Whoa.  Matt Stover’s life sucks.  It’s like a Greek play.

10. Watch the ramifications.  Caldwell’s been on “Wuss Watch” all year when it comes to fourth down.  He’s mostly fared well, but I fear the fallout from the Belichick call could tip the scales in the wrong direction.  Watch how Jim handles the tough calls inside the 45.  If he’s aggressive, I’ll calm down.  If however, he seems unusually timid, perhaps my worst feels will be realized.  I wouldn’t mind the Colts losing a game in the regular season because Caldwell wussed out. I’d rather us win one because he was bold.

11. Watch the Star.  Jerraud Powers was a revelation last week against the Pats.  He’s been a major star for the Colts this season, and is quickly becoming a very good corner in the NFL.  The Ravens really only have one true receiving threat, the ageless wonder Derrick Mason.  To put it in perspective, the Colts have four players with as many or more catches than the Ravens #1 WR.  If Powers can help keep Mason quiet, Joe Flacco will have to focus in on his lesser options.

12. Watch the Blind Side. Apparently there’s some little independent film starring some actress no one’s ever heard of out about the life of rookie RT Michael Oher.  It’s not a big deal or anything, and I hear they aren’t promoting it heavily.  I’m sure this is the only mention of it that will be made this weekend. This is why you come to 18to88, to find out things that you couldn’t get from just turning on the TV and watching it for 5 seconds.  What would you do without us?

13.  Watch for a chip on the shoulder. Bethea and Freeney both made big plays last week, but both caught a lot of negative attention as well.  Bethea was responsible for several of Moss’s big catches early, and the perception (false) was that Freeney was handled by a rookie LT.  Both men are among the best Colts’ playmakers and both will show up eager to make a statement on Sunday.  In fact, the entire Colts D should come in angry.  They played well after the early mistakes, but haven’t gotten any credit for shutting down the Pats on four straight plays to help win the game.

14.  Watch for the let down.  Indy played an epic game that felt like it should have decided the NFL season (maybe it did).  Baltimore played on Monday night in a scrimmage against the Browns.  Either team could come out flat this Sunday and no one would be surprised.  The Colts never seem to get too high or too low, and I doubt there is a lot of euphoria after they have been trashed and written off by many in the media after their terrible performance in beating the second best team in football on Sunday night.  Still, it could be a tough turn around.

15. Watch the injury report.  Both teams are facing a waiting game on key players.  Baltimore apparently has lost Terrell Suggs after a cheap hit by Brady Quinn.  Suggs has 3.5 sacks on the year for the Ravens, so his loss will hurt.  Indy on the other hand is hoping for good news from Bethea and Freeney (d’ouh!) as well as Eric Foster.  Football often turns into a war of attrition this time of year, and the game could come down to which side can field a healthy team.

16. Watch the chess match.  Manning and Ray Lewis are the two iconic players and their positions in the NFL this decade.  There are no two more recognizable faces in the NFL.  As noted above, Manning has owned the Ravens during the Lewis years, but like Manning, Lewis is still playing well at an advanced age.  He’s on pace for his most tackles since 2004 and also has two sacks on the season.  Manning will seek to account for Lewis and Ed Reed at all times.

17.  Watch for ten.  A win would give the Colts their 8th consecutive 10 win season, and their 10th in 11 years.  Before Manning game, the Colts had never posted 10 regular seasons wins since 1977.  22 years with no 10 win teams.  Ten 10 win teams in ll years.  Peyton makes all the difference, doesn’t he?

18.  Watch for ownership.  The Colts own the Ravens, and this isn’t a good matchup at all for Baltimore who doesn’t field nearly the defense they used to.  Indy shows no signs of let down and rolls to a 28-17 win.  Demond likes the Colts 23-16.