Colts vs. Ravens: 34 things to watch

INDIANAPOLIS — The Colts face their toughest test of the season so far at 1 p.m. Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens in the 100th game played at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Indianapolis (5-2), tied for first in the AFC South with the Tennessee Titans, get its first crack at an AFC contender in the Ravens (5-2), coming off of a tough loss to their rival Pittsburgh Steelers.

1. The No. 2 defense in the NFL faces its first real test. Indianapolis ranks second in the league in total yards (293.4 per game) and fifth in points (19.4 per game), but all seven offenses the Colts have faced so far rank 16th in the NFL in yardage or worse. Baltimore, for all of its reputation, ranks just 20th in yards, but the Ravens are ninth in points, boast the NFL’s best rush game and just put up 457 yards against the Steelers.

Darius Leonard vs. Lamar Jackson

2. Lamar Jackson makes the Ravens’ offense go. Incredibly fast and elusive, the reigning MVP has 411 rushing yards this season in addition to 1,343 passing yards, but he’s not playing at the same level as he did in 2019. Jackson is completing just 60.5% of his passes, has taken 19 sacks and turned the ball over seven times with four interceptions and three fumbles.

3. Colts star Darius Leonard has traditionally been the defense’s best weapon against mobile quarterbacks, frequently going toe to toe with Houston Texans star Deshaun Watson. When Leonard is deployed as a spy, he handles it differently from most other linebackers, advancing and looking for a chance to attack and turn the play into a sack.

Indianapolis Colts cornerback Isaiah Rodgers (34) warms up before colts training camp at the Farm Bureau Football Complex in Indianapolis on Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. (Photo: Marc Lebryk, Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports)

4. Leonard and his talented running mates at linebacker, Bobby Okereke and Anthony Walker, might help Indianapolis match up against a Baltimore team that likes to use a lot of tight ends. Few teams in the NFL are as deep at linebacker as the Colts; Indianapolis has three linebackers playing more than 50 percent of the snaps, and playing well.

J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards vs. Colts run defense

5. Ravens running back Mark Ingram might not play due to a high ankle sprain, but Baltimore has excellent reserves in rookie J.K. Dobbins (267 yards) and veteran Gus Edwards (305 yards), who combined to rush for 200 yards on 31 carries last week against Pittsburgh.

6. The way Baltimore runs the football makes defending the Ravens more difficult. Baltimore has all of the traditional elements of the NFL run game, but the presence of Jackson allows them to use schemes that are more prevalent at the college level, such as zone reads and option plays. Indianapolis must play disciplined, assignment-dependent football.

No Ronnie Stanley, Patrick Mekari for Ravens offensive line

7. Ronnie Stanley, Baltimore’s All-Pro left tackle, suffered a season-ending injury last week, moving Orlando Brown to the blind side and D.J. Fluker to the right. Brown is a talented player, but Fluker has struggled at tackle in his career, which might open some opportunities for Justin Houston and Tyquan Lewis, who is coming off of a two-sack performance in his first start at defensive end.

8. The Ravens also lost rookie right guard Tyre Phillips to an ankle injury, which pushed second-year player Patrick Mekari into the lineup. Buckner, in particular, has feasted on backups this season, and he’s capable of taking over the game.

9. Colts nose tackle Grover Stewart has been great all season, blossoming into one of the league’s best space-eaters, and if he wins the battle against Ravens center Matt Skura, it will be difficult for Baltimore’s running game to get going.

10. The big problem with the Ravens offense has been the lack of the explosive passing play. After being one of the NFL’s top teams in that category last season, Baltimore ranks 25th in plays of 20 yards or more, and Indianapolis isn’t going to make it easy. The Colts defense has allowed just 21 such plays and leads the NFL in passer rating allowed.

Hollywood Brown, Mark Andrews vs. Colts pass defense

11. Ravens burner Marquise “Hollywood” Brown is the big-time receiving threat. Incredibly fast, Brown will be a tough matchup for the Colts’ pair of big cornerbacks, Xavier Rhodes and Rock Ya-Sin, and likely will draw some extra attention from free safety Julian Blackmon. Brown leads Baltimore with 27 catches for 379 yards this season, but he’s been frustrated with his lack of use, tweeting about it after the Ravens’ loss to the Steelers.

12. Tight end Mark Andrews is the Ravens’ second-leading receiver with 23 catches for 275 yards and a team-best five touchdowns, but the Colts have given up just 222 yards to opposing tight ends this season, the fewest in the NFL. Strong safety Khari Willis and the coverage prowess of Leonard and Okereke make it difficult to get the tight end open.

13. Indianapolis has rarely used its three-safety packages this season, but given Baltimore’s speed, it’s possible the Colts deploy Tavon Wilson or George Odum some in nickel packages in order to match up with the running game.

14. Colts nickel Kenny Moore is starting to make a bid for Pro Bowl consideration. Moore has 29 tackles, a sack, two quarterback hits, two interceptions and seven passes defended, and his blitzing ability makes him an important defender against Baltimore.

15. Jackson has been terrible against the blitz this season, his completion percentage, yards per attempt and rating dropping when teams bring the house against him. Indianapolis is not typically a blitz-heavy team, but defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus dialed up several against the Lions, and that might continue this week to take advantage of Jackson’s weakness.’

16. A Colts pass rush that got back on track by sacking Matthew Stafford five times now must deal with the most elusive quarterback in the NFL. Indianapolis has struggled at times to keep quarterbacks corralled, and if the Colts can’t shut down lanes against Jackson, he can make teams pay.

17. When teams double Buckner, the way the Lions did last week, players such as Lewis and Denico Autry have to step up the way they did in two-sack performances versus Stafford.

18. If there’s a wild card on the Ravens, it’s rookie speedster Devin Duvernay, a third-round pick with elite speed who has seen an increasing role in recent weeks. Duvernay has a kickoff return for a touchdown, a 42-yard carry and a 39-yard reception this season, and he can be devastating.

19. For the first time this season, an excellent Colts special teams unit got out-classed by Detroit last week, and the Ravens will be another tough test. Baltimore hasn’t given up a whole lot in the return game this season, just 4.9 yards on punts and 19.6 yards on kicks, numbers that rank in the top 10 in the NFL.

20. If the game comes down to a Ravens field goal, the Colts are in trouble. Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker is the NFL’s best.

Yannick Ngakoue vs. Anthony Castonzo

21. Baltimore ranks fifth in the NFL with 24 sacks, and the Ravens can get to the quarterback in a lot of different ways. Up front, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue has always given Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo trouble, and interior rusher Calais Campbell remains as dangerous as he’s ever been, leading Baltimore with four sacks.

22. The presence of Ngakoue and Campbell notwithstanding, the Ravens generate a lot of their pressure off the blitz. Eight Ravens have two sacks or more, and a pair of defensive backs, Marlon Humphrey and DeShon Elliott, are tied for second behind Campbell with 2.5 sacks apiece.

23. Blitzing Colts quarterback Philip Rivers isn’t always the best strategy. Rivers has always been at his best against the blitz, his knack for making pre-snap reads and getting the ball out of his hand quickly deadly when teams bring extra players. If Baltimore blitzes a lot, Rivers and center Ryan Kelly might have the upper hand in recognizing it.

No Marlon Humphrey due to COVID-19

24. Humphrey, one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks, will miss this game after testing positive for COVID-19 early in the week. The likely replacement, veteran Jimmy Smith, has been battling his own injuries of late and playing a hybrid role at cornerback and safety this season, but the 32-year-old Smith is a big, physical veteran with a lot of experience in the NFL.

25. Because of Humphrey’s test, seven Ravens have sat out this week of practice as high-risk close contacts, but all are expected to play against the Colts.

26. Outside of Ngakoue and Campbell, Baltimore employs a rotating cast of pass rushers at outside linebacker, led by Matt Judon, who had a team-leading 9.5 sacks last season. Pernell McPhee, Tyus Bowser and Jaylon Ferguson have all had sacks in that role this year.

Can Philip Rivers produce big plays?

27. Rivers has turned in the best two games of his season in a row, throwing for 633 yards, six touchdowns and one interception against the Bengals and Lions, but the big play might be more difficult to produce against the Ravens. Baltimore is allowing just 5.9 yards per play and is tied for the league lead against explosive passing plays, giving up just 16 on the season.

28. The Colts likely will not have T.Y. Hilton, who is doubtful to play with a groin injury, and big-play machine Marcus Johnson is questionable with a knee injury suffered in practice Wednesday. Without those two players and speedster Ashton Dulin (out with a knee injury), creating explosive plays to the wide receivers will be much more difficult.

29. Expect the Colts to either make rookie Dezmon Patmon active for the first time or bring up DeMichael Harris or Daurice Fountain from the practice squad to shore up the receiver position.

30. The good news for an Indianapolis team that might be limited at wide receiver is that it has Mo Alie-Cox, Trey Burton and Jack Doyle, three tight ends who have all been increasingly productive the past couple of weeks. Baltimore has given up 36 catches, 380 yards and four touchdowns to tight ends this season, which puts the Ravens 18th in the league.

31. Everybody knows Rivers’ fatal flaw. The two games the Colts have lost have been marked by a pair of back-breaking Rivers interceptions, but Baltimore has just three picks this season. That might be a little bit misleading on the Ravens defense; Baltimore cornerback Marcus Peters is one of the best gamblers in the NFL, leads the defense with two interceptions and Rivers has to avoid getting caught in one of his traps.

Will Jordan Wilkins start?

32. A struggling Indianapolis running game faces a Baltimore defense that is ranked seventh in the NFL against the run and 17th in yards per carry. Making things more difficult, the Colts benched rookie Jonathan Taylor last week and turned the running game over to Jordan Wilkins, leaving some uncertainty about who handles the load this week.

33. Wilkins was good down the stretch against Baltimore, but in the three games before that performance he had just 15 yards on 11 carries. Taylor, on the other hand, had averaged 4.5 yards per carry over the same stretch. Frank Reich has said the Colts will go with the hot hand, and against a team like the Ravens, they have to figure it out quickly.

34. After a bad start, the Colts have been much better on third down and in the red zone, but it will be tough on third down this week. Baltimore’s defense is fourth in the NFL on third down, allowing conversions on just 34.5% of the drives, although the Ravens are actually the second-worst defense in the NFL in the red zone.

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Wednesday November 2, 2022