Baltimore Ravens vs. Indianapolis Colts
Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013
1:00 p.m. (EST)
Colts' offense vs. Ravens' defense
Linebacker Ray Lewis' swan song postseason starts off with a battle of the wits against Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. Both players have a tremendous ability to read the opponent's alignments before the snap, and do a great job of changing the play before the snap to put their respective units into favorable alignments and plays. Whichever of the two can fool the other most often will give their unit a major advantage.
In terms of physical factors, Lewis' return will have a much smaller impact than it will on the chess match aspect of the game. Lewis reads plays correctly, and as a results is frequently in position to "clean up" run plays, tackling a ball-carrier who the rest of the front seven has forced into running in Lewis' direction. On the other side, he lacks the quickness to disrupt run plays by exploding past blockers.
Lost in the excitement of Luck's passing prowess is the fact that he is also a very efficient runner. He's picked up a first down 37 percent of the times he has run with the football, and has scored five rushing touchdowns on the season. If Luck escapes the pocket to the outside of the field, the Ravens immediately face a huge mismatch.
Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton has emerged as a deep target for the Colts, and can burn the Ravens for a long touchdown if the defense prematurely vacates its assignments and tries to stop Luck from running with the ball. If the Ravens stay disciplined in pass coverage when Luck gets outside of the pocket, though, they're giving a good bit of running room to a quarterback who's averaging 4.1 yards per carry.
Likewise, if Luck is given space to run up the middle and no receivers are open, he can take off elude the 38-year-old Lewis without difficulty. To prevent Luck from hurting the defense with his legs, the Ravens will need to clog the middle of the line of scrimmage when pass-rushing, and rely on their outside linebackers to keep Luck from running outside of the pocket.
If the Ravens can force Luck to stay in the pocket, he's going to have to be patient and methodical while the pass rush is coming down in his face. Tight end Dwayne Allen's precise route-running and quick cuts allow him to find openings between linebackers in pass coverage.
As pass coverage is a weakness for the Ravens, especially Lewis, Allen's ability to find creases in the defense is going to be vital to the Colts' hopes of keeping the offense moving smoothly. Reggie Wayne has lost a lot of effectiveness as a deep threat, with his longest reception of the year being only 33 yards, but his ability to get into cushions in the defense will be another weapon in the short passing game.
When looking for big plays through the air, the Colts are going to have to lean heavily on Luck hitting Hilton in the seams of coverage when the Ravens play zone. Luck can't be afraid to pull the trigger and hit Hilton deep in the middle of the field, or the Ravens will be able to play closer to the line and have more success disrupting the run game and short passing game. If Luck tries to force the ball to Hilton in that area, though, safety Ed Reed will be waiting in the middle of the field to make Luck pay for his mistake.
Ravens' offense vs. Colts' defense
The Ravens don't have the best quarterback or receiving corps, but the offense is constructed in a manner where the units' strengths complement each other, making the Ravens' offense much greater than the sum of its parts.
Quarterback Joe Flacco doesn't go through progressions well, usually either firing the ball deep or immediately checking down to running back Ray Rice if the deep option isn't open. When he does throw mid-range passes, Flacco's accuracy is frequently off-target.
Veteran receiver Anquan Boldin isn't a speedy deep threat, but he's great at adjusting to the ball in the air, which helps compensate for Flacco's lack of accuracy on passes with a medium distance. On the deep ball, receiver Torrey Smith consistently gets good positioning underneath deep passes so he can make a play, and receiver Jacoby Jones is a threat to take the top off the defense on the opposite side of the field from Smith.
Further complicating the Colts' task of stopping the Ravens' passing game is running back Ray Rice and the Ravens' powerful offensive line. The Colts' defensive line gets blown off the ball often in the run game, so the linebackers will be more involved providing run support than defending against the pass.
As a result, the most important player in this matchup will be Colts cornerback Vontae Davis. Davis has great speed and can get to overthrows that would otherwise just be incompletions, as he did on an interception of Matt Schuab in the endzone when covering Andre Johnson last week. If Davis can stay with Smith and Jones down the field when covering them, he'll have a shot to fight for the ball and make the rest of the Colts' defenders' jobs easier.