Indys’ offense is going to have its hands full against Greg Mattison’s defense, which for all intents and purposes, is Rex Ryan’s defense. Mattison wisely followed the old adage, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
The Colts’ offensive line, and Peyton Manning, has always struggled against this defense. Even though the Colts lead the series against the Ravens, 5-2 in the regular season, and 1-0 in the playoffs, no one would argue that those have been easy wins.
One only has to go back to the divisional playoff game in ’07, where Indy had to go on the road and play the Ravens, to see how tough these two teams play each other. Peyton Manning threw three interceptions in that game and no touchdowns. Yet in the end, Manning was able to muster enough long, sustained drives, which wore down the Ravens defense, and led to a close win by the Colts.
Even this year’s win against Baltimore was no walk in the park. In fact, it was the Colts' red zone defense, which held the Ravens to field goals, that secured the win in that game.
Having said all of that, when the dust settles, the Colts almost always find a way to beat the Ravens.
Offensively, the key to this game in my mind is not going to be quick strike scores, down the sideline to Reggie Wayne—mainly because I don’t think they will be there. No, the answer to winning this game is for the Colts to do something very similar to what they did to the Patriots, and the Bears in their ’07 Super Bowl run: slow methodical drives early on, that wear the defense out for the second half.
To understand why you would want to do this against Baltimore you have to understand the mindset that Rex Ryan firmly implanted into the Ravens' psyche.
The Ravens defense is based on movement and confusion up front, and disguising their coverages in the backfield, with all of this aimed at confusing the opponents offensive line, and quarterback. Their defense isn’t based so much around a particular formation, as it is around the above philosophy.
Simply put, here is the thinking of the Ravens, “We’re going to move a lot of guys around before the snap, try to create confusion on the offensive line, so that you never know who is coming, and who is dropping into coverage, and we’re going to play out of whatever formation that gives us the best chance of doing that.”
That philosophy worked great last week against the Patriots, but that game was a bit misleading. It made the Ravens look like the best defense in the league, which is a bit of a misnomer, because the play of the Patriots' line was awful. The Pats’ line couldn’t even pick up the same blitz, the Mike-Will Cross Cover-Three, after it was run on them several times.
Plus, a banged up Brady didn’t help the situation, as he had one of the worst games of his illustrious career. The Ravens have a very good defense; they’re just not as good as they looked last week.
Against the Colts, who have a much better line, and have Peyton Manning, who can sniff out a blitz “like an old huntin' dog,” as his father Archie likes to say, the Ravens aggressive philosophy of attack, attack, attack won’t be as effective.
The more the Colts can sustain drives on offense, and pick up the Ravens' blitzes, the more Baltimore’s defense is going to tire out. The reason is, that with all the moving around the Ravens do pre-snap, and all the hustling they have to do post-snap, they tend to wear out quicker than most defenses do when they are kept on the field for multiple, five to seven minute drives.
The idea here is get them tired in the first half so that in the second half, when things really matter, they’re already exhausted. Then you will see the big plays open up down the field, as well as the running game for the Colts explode.
In the first half, I expect to see Manning playing from the shotgun for the majority of the snaps. They probably will want to stretch the Ravens defense out, trying to reduce the number of guys they can blitz, and also decreasing their ability to disguise their defense. This will work to a degree; the Ravens are the masters at disguising their coverages, so there is only so much you can do.
The Ravens are going to come out in a lot of different formations and schemes: the 46 defense (the old Buddy Ryan scheme from the '80s), 4-3, 3-4, Quarters, and the Dollar formation, and you will see zone blitzes, fake blitzes, with only a three man rush, defensive tackles dropping into coverage, Cover 1 blitzes with bump and run on the receivers, and a lot of blitz schemes from the 4-3, 3-4, Dollar, and Quarters formations that use Cover 3 Man Under.
The reason you will see a lot of Cover 3 is that Greg Mattison is not going to take the chance of giving up the deep ball to Manning on a blitz. Everyone in the league knows how dangerous it is to blitz Manning: first he is the best in the league at recognizing the blitz, second he is hard to sack even if the blitz isn't picked up, and so if you don’t play cover three then you’re going to hear the announcer saying “Manning to Wayne for a touchdown.”
Here is what I expect the Colts to do to counter what the Ravens will try to do on defense: Manning will work a lot from the Shotgun in the Gun Split, Gun Deuce, Gun Dice, and when they want to go four wide the Gun Normal Y Flex formation. The Colts will come out in three and four receiver sets mostly. I don't expect to see them use the spread formation as much as they did in the regular season, because that leaves Manning with no extra defenders in the backfield.
From the above formation, Addai is going to have a huge role in pass protection, which he excels at. It’s a shame that more people, that are so quick to criticize him, don’t realize how good he is in the backfield, protecting Manning from defensive players who have broken through the first line of defense.
Instead of running the ball, the Colts will call a lot of screen plays, which are always great blitz beaters, and tend to stop teams from blitzing as much if they are successful. Not only will Addai be used in the screens, but you will also see a lot of screen plays using Wayne and Clark.
Also, you should expect to see them moving Wayne and Clark around a lot. Don’t be surprised to see Wayne in the Slot, and Clark lined up as the Flanker. They will also leave Clark in to pass block or flex him out, while they put Wayne in motion to beat bump-and-run coverage. Let’s face it, if Wayne can get an inside release on one of the Ravens mediocre corners then that ball is going deep down the field, even if Ed Reed is lurking back there.
Another factor in slowing the Ravens down is tight end Dallas Clark, who, because of his talent, always has to be accounted for. Clark is what I like to call a hidden receiver when he is lined up next to the right tackle. The reason being is that you don't know if he is going to stay in and block, or if he is going to be flexed, and out running a route – usually catching the ball for a big gain on an overly aggressive defense like the Ravens.
Clark will create problems for the Ravens’ defense because he is so gifted; for example, if the Colts have a play called with Collie in the Slot, and Garcon as the Flanker, with Clark lined up next to the right tackle, all Manning has to do is flex Clark, and now you have trips bunch on the strongside without the defense knowing it. That really creates problems for defensive coordinators to game plan around, because again, he is the hidden receiver in the Colts’ offense.
Another thing I expect the Colts will do, if blitzes aren't being picked up, is go to Gun Split, so that Manning will have Addai on one side, and the H-Back, Gijon Robinson on the other. This formation gives Manning lots of different ways to burn the Ravens if they're overly aggressive. Depending where the blitz comes from both backs can stay in and block, if no one is open down field, Manning has the option of dumping the ball off to one of them, as there is typically an area of the field that has been vacated by the player/players who blitzed, which is usually the flats. Opportunities open up for the wheel route, dumping the ball off in the flat, or the angle route over the middle. It's a nice formation because of the versatility it offers. You can have extra protection in the backfield, while still being able to take advantage of holes left in the defense because of the blitz.
Another thing you will see a lot of, is the Colts sending two receivers deep, and have the slot receiver, the tight end, and the backs all running routes underneath the three deep coverage, so that they can pick up three to seven yard chunks per reception, which will put themselves in manageable third downs, and keep the chains moving. Given that the Colts are best in the league at converting third downs, this works right into the plan of sustaining long drives.
All of these quick passes will substitute for a running game, and when matched with using Gun Split, or having the tight end and H-Back on opposite sides of the line to block, the Ravens' defense will slowly wear down, which will reduce the number of blitzes called, and in turn, slow down the pass rush in the first half.
Sure there will be draw plays to run the ball, and the Colts will come out in the standard Ace formation some of the time, and run the stretch play, but I expect 80 percent of the plays to be from the shotgun, so Manning can get a better pre/post snap read on the defense.
Most teams can’t run their offense entirely from the shotgun because this is a passing formation, but with the way the Colts use the draw play, and the short routes like the quick out, slants over the middle, the curl route, angle route, screen plays, and dump offs to the back in the backfield, it works for them, and gives them a quasi-running game—even if it is a non-traditional one.
Of course, it doesn’t matter what formation your team is in, when you have the best quarterback that has ever played the game, calling the plays.
So the basic idea is to keep the Ravens worrying about the deep, quick strike, while you dink and dunk your way down the field, meticulously moving the ball, for first down after first down, and topping it off with a score.
If the Colts are successful with this plan in the first half, then in the second half they will be able to go back to the ace formation, or the Joe Gibbs ace formation when needed, and run the ball on a tired Ravens defense.
What's ironic here, is you usually want to keep your offense on the field so you can keep the opposing quarterback on the bench. In this case, the Colts D isn’t afraid of Joe Flacco, and if they can keep the Ravens running game to 100 yards, Flacco is going to have to put the ball in the air, which plays right into the hands of this talented Colts defense.
Don’t let the rankings fool you. The Colts D is much better than the stats lead you to believe.
No, in this case the real threat is the Ravens defense, and you want to wear them down, like the Colts did the last time they met in the 2007 divisional round, so that they can’t stop your offense in the second half, especially if it’s a close game, like I think it’s going to be.
If the Colts follow this formula, they will win this game, and get the first seed, you shouldn’t have rested your players, bye week monkey off their backs.