We’ve talked about the Steelers a lot this offseason. Everyone knows that the Ravens will need to beat them to get to their next Super Bowl. They’re the Ravens’ biggest rival right now, mainly because they’re in the same division. But even with all the concern over the Steelers, the Ravens cannot forget about their other big rival in the AFC…the Indianapolis Colts.
Some people may not refer to the games between the Ravens and the Colts as a rivalry. A rivalry needs competition, and the Ravens haven’t won a game versus the Colts since 2002. That includes losses in the playoffs in 2006 and 2009.
The Colts have been fortunate in their regular season meetings with the Ravens, who haven’t had a formidable secondary since 2006. In the regular season meetings from 2007 to 2009, the Ravens have had injuries in the secondary in every game, which includes the game in 2007 which was Chris McAlister’s last game as a Raven.
The 2007 game, which the Ravens lost 44-20, was also a short week immediately after the Ravens lost the emotional Monday night game to the undefeated Patriots.
Regarding the 2007 game, Colts ex-head coach Tony Dungy said, “We don’t have many [high-scoring games] against [the Ravens]. We caught them where they had some [defensive backs] injured. They were coming off a real emotional game. They had lost at the wire against New England. We played them on a short week and we got up quick, but most of the games we’ve had against them have really been struggles.”
While it’s true that the Ravens don’t often get blown out like they did in 2007, the rivalry between the Ravens and the Colts is still very lopsided, and that is due in large part to the success the Colts quarterback, Peyton Manning, has been able to have versus the Ravens’ defense.
“There’s a little bit of that chess match,” Manning said. “It’s always a challenge moving the ball against [the Ravens].” If there is a “chess match,” Manning knows how to play it like a master and consistently finds more success versus the Ravens than any other quarterback in the league.
The key to Manning’s success is not just his talent, although that obviously plays into it, but also his approach when playing the Ravens defense. Many quarterbacks usually get into trouble versus the Ravens by either playing too safe or too aggressive.
The Ravens are renowned for making life difficult for opposing quarterbacks and force them to play a nearly perfect game in order to find success. That’s why Manning consistently has success versus the Ravens.
He is patient enough to not force throws and aggressive enough to keep the Ravens honest. He stacks the “chess match” in his favor, and instead of playing a perfect game himself, he puts the pressure on the Ravens to play the perfect game—something that they haven’t been able to do.
In order to beat the Colts, the Ravens will need to beat Manning, and the strategy to beating Manning is the same strategy that he uses versus the Ravens…a balanced approach. Solid pass protection with consistent pressure on Manning is the key.
Playing the Colts begins and ends with pass protection, and that’s been where the Ravens have failed in the past. Manning cannot be beaten with blitzes alone since he will simply exploit a defense that blitzes too much over the course of a game.
Solid pass protection can only be achieved with good players in the secondary. The Ravens have lacked talent in the secondary since 2006, and it has been an area that they’ve focused on rebuilding recently with the signing Domonique Foxworth in 2009, the trade for Josh Wilson last season and the pick of Jimmy Smith, the cornerback from Colorado, in the last draft.
The Ravens now have the talent to beat the Colts offense, but they will still need to play with patience. As we’ve already learned, the key to beating Manning is to play a balanced game, and the Ravens will need to play solid coverage and mix in blitzes to keep Manning off balance.
Even if the Ravens play perfect coverage, Manning is good enough that he’ll still put up points or at the very least, get his team into position to attempt field goals. In the 2006 playoff game versus the Ravens, Manning didn’t score a single touchdown but still moved the offense enough for them to score five field goals, which were enough to win the game.
Beating Manning may be the key, but it may not be enough. The Ravens offense will need to find success versus the Colts defense as well. The Colts defense is built to play with a lead, so in a way, Manning is also a big part of their defense.
Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are still two of the best edge rushers in the league, and when opposing offenses are desperately trying to keep up with Manning, the Colts defense is capable of putting tremendous pressure on the quarterback.
They are also a very high-speed, high-effort defense. In the beginning of games, their defense is fresh and playing with the most speed and intensity, but toward the end of games, they can be worn out and run over. Again, the theory here is to play tough enough at the beginning to allow Manning to take the lead and then prevent the opposing offense from being able to catch up with the edge rush.
Therefore, the best strategy versus the Colts defense is to take an early lead. That can be difficult considering the intensity and speed that they’re capable of early in games but will pay dividends later in the game.
The Ravens have more talent in the secondary than they’ve had since 2006, so they should be capable of putting together a good defensive game plan versus Manning. They also have an offensive system that’s entering its fourth season, so they should be able to find enough success versus the Colts defense.
On paper, the Ravens are more prepared to face the Colts than they’ve been in the John Harbaugh era, but as we all know, football is not played on paper. The Ravens will still need to beat Manning, one of the best quarterbacks in league history, at his game, and since the Colts are likely to be one of the best teams in the AFC next season, they will need to find a way to do it next season.
The Colt’s have consistently beaten the Ravens since 2002 and have knocked them out twice in their last four playoff appearances. If the Ravens want to win another Super Bowl, maybe they should start giving the Colts as much attention as they’re giving the Steelers.