INDIANAPOLIS – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Baltimore Ravens at Lucas Oil Stadium.
- Kickoff: 1 p.m.
- Broadcast: CBS4
The bigger picture
We’ll begin where things might end for a pair of 5-2 outfits. The Colts share the AFC South lead with the Tennessee Titans while the Ravens already are two games behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North. Both still are in position to win their division, but one of three wild-card berths might be the avenue into the postseason.
At this point, the Ravens are the No.5 seed and the Colts No. 6, just ahead of the Cleveland Browns. Even though we’re just hitting the halfway mark of the season, let’s not dismiss the importance of possible tiebreaker scenarios. The Colts already have lost to the Browns, and a loss to the Ravens would further compound any jostling in late December.
Indy is heading into the teeth of its schedule: the Ravens, at Tennessee, home with Green Bay, home with the Titans. Down the road are two meetings with Houston and trips to Las Vegas and Pittsburgh.
Here’s where we offer a brief history lesson. The Colts are 10-5 all-time against the Ravens, but the Ravens have won three of the last four. Baltimore is working on a nine-game road win streak – the NFL’s longest active streak – but is 0-6 in Indy, including the playoffs.
Strength on strength
This is one of those matchups that grabs your attention: the Ravens’ run game vs. the Colts’ run defense. The Ravens rank No. 1 in yards per game (178.7) and per attempt (5.5) while the Colts are No. 2 in yards per game (79.9) and per attempt (3.5). The Ravens set an NFL record with 3,259 yards last season while the Colts are on pace to allow the fewest yards per game in franchise history since 1971 (79.1).
Baltimore is relentless and diverse. It threatens a defense’s discipline with quarterback Lamar Jackson’s read-option antics and ability to elude the pass rush. The Ravens have generated a league-high 15 runs of at least 20 yards, and Jackson has contributed five. Only Alvin Kamara, Nick Chubb and Russell Wilson – with six each – have more.
Mark Ingram II likely won’t play because of an ankle injury, but Gus Edwards (305 yards, 4.8 per attempt) and J.K. Dobbins (267, 6.7) are serious threats. In last Sunday’s 28-24 loss to Pittsburgh, the Ravens ripped off 265 yards on 47 attempts. Dobbins led the way with 113 yards on just 15 attempts, and Edwards added 87 yards on 16 rushes.
The Colts, meanwhile, counter with a run defense that has been one of the NFL’s best since the arrival of coordinator Matt Eberflus in 2018. It thrives on a swarm-to-the-ball, 11-versus-1 mentality. Tackle Grover Stewart is in the process of earning a big free-agent contract either from the Colts or another team and DeForest Buckner has proven to be worth the hefty investment. The speed and athleticism of the linebackers – led by All-Pro Darius Leonard – make it all work.
One more tidbit. The Ravens have rushed for at least 100 yards in 30 straight regular-season games, the NFL’s longest active streak. Their lowest output this season: 111 yards in the season-opening win over the Browns. The Colts have allowed just two teams to crack the 100-yard mark this season and limited the Lions to 29 and the Bears to 28.
Make Jackson one-dimensional
If the Colts are able to at least limit the Ravens’ run game, they’re equipped to deal with a Jackson-led pass game. For all his elusiveness, Jackson has been sacked 19 times. That’s sixth-most in the league. And he hasn’t been as sharp in the pass game as he was during his 2019 MVP season. He’s completing 60.2% of his attempts and has suffered four interceptions in the last four games, including two against Pittsburgh. Jackson has compounded the interceptions with six fumbles, three recovered by the opposition.
Eberflus wouldn’t tip his hand on how the Colts will deal with Jackson, but no one should be surprised if Leonard frequently is used as a spy. When Jackson is in the pocket, it’s imperative Buckner, Justin Houston, Denico Autry and Tyquan Lewis keep him there and get him on the ground.
The Ravens will be without left tackle Ronnie Shelton (ankle) and right guard Tyre Phillips (ankle). Exploit the backups.
Weather the storms on offense
Philip Rivers is coming off two efficient, productive games: 52-of-77 (67.5%), 633 yards, six TDs, one interception, a 113.2 passer rating in wins over Detroit and Cincinnati. When he plays at that level, the Colts are legit.
But let’s be realistic – there will be tough patches against the Ravens. That’s the norm. They only have three interceptions, but 13 players have combined for 24 sacks – 5th-most in the league – and they have 45 QB hits and 35 tackles for loss.
Rivers and the offense must balance patience with aggression. Realize the Ravens’ defense is going to win its share and don’t compound things with a risky pass. But when the situation presents itself – and it will – hit the big plays. T.Y. Hilton probably won’t play because of a groin injury, but Marcus Johnson has been a steady threat in stretching the field, averaging 20.6 yards on 11 catches.
Commit to the run
At least early. The Ravens rank in the middle of the pack against the run – 17th in yards per game (100.3) and 10th in yards per attempt (4.4) – so they’ll be opportunities for Jonathan Taylor, Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines. We’re not a football savant, but we know it won’t be a good idea having Rivers throw it 40-plus times. Even if the running game gets off to another slow start, Indy needs to show a measure of patience with it unless it believes Rivers can dink-and-dunk all afternoon.
As for which back gets the bulk of the work, we’re siding with Taylor even though Wilkins supplanted him as the feature back at Detroit. We’re taking coach Frank Reich at his word that he was going with the hot hand.
We still consider Taylor the focal point of the run game. And this would be a nice time for him to play the part.
And the winner is
Colts 23, Ravens 20. This would be one of those statement games. Most of the national attention is on the Ravens. The Colts seem to be background noise. If Indy is going to establish itself as a legitimate AFC contender, Sunday would be the ideal time to step up.
By the way, the closeness of the game could swing on the kicking. The Ravens feature the NFL’s best kicker in Justin Tucker. The Colts are riding rookie Rodrigo Blankenship, who missed his first two PATs of the season at Detroit.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.