3TFO: Colts @ Ravens, AFC Wild Card
Gordon McGuiness sets the scene for the most emotionally charged of the weekend's Wild Card playoffs, and notes that Ray Lewis' return will mean more than just sentiment.
3TFO: Colts @ Ravens, AFC Wild Card
In Sunday’s ‘Emotional Boost’ Bowl, the Indianapolis Colts travel to Baltimore to take on the Ravens one week after Head Coach Chuck Pagano’s return to the team. Pagano’s story this year has been well documented, but it’s worth noting that the Colts’ story itself, going from the first overall draft pick to the playoffs, is impressive it its own right given the turnover on the roster.
After the news earlier this week we now know that his next loss in Ravens purple will be the last we see of linebacker Ray Lewis on the football field. Given what he has meant to his teammates, and the city itself, it’s hard to imagine there will have been a more charged atmosphere at M&T Bank Stadium than the one we’ll see, and hear, on Sunday.
In between all the emotions that add to this game, there are actually some football matchups that will go a long way to deciding the outcome of this one. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the three key areas to focus on as the Colts and Ravens try to extend their seasons.
Colts Run Defense vs. Ravens Running Game
While it’s been an impressive feat by the Colts to make it to the playoffs, they certainly need to improve their play on defense against the run. Just two weeks removed from the Kansas City Chiefs gashing them for 354 yards on the ground, they’ll be more than aware that a repeat performance wont be enough to escape Baltimore with a win. Only three of Indianapolis’ defensive linemen have a positive grade as a run defender through the regular season and one of them, Drake Nevis, is already done for the year.
At defensive end, former Raven Cory Redding leads the team with a Run Stop Percentage of 8.2%, with 16 of his 20 tackles resulting in a defensive stop. Fellow starter Ricardo Mathews has struggled even more to make an impact, making just eight tackles that have resulted in a defensive stop from 226 snaps against the run, and a Run Stop Percentage of 3.5%. At linebacker, the only player on the roster who has impressed against the run this season has been Kavell Conner, who leads all inside linebackers who have played 25% of their teams snaps or more with a Run Stop Percentage of 18.0%. That being said, even Conner has struggled with missed tackles, missing one for every 9.8 attempted against the run.
That weakness goes head-to-head with a Ravens’ offense that is at its best when running back Ray Rice sees as much of the ball as possible. Always a danger to shake free of a defender after a reception, Rice has actually improved as a runner in 2012, forcing 20 missed tackles from 257 runs, compared with 17 from 291 a year ago. Combined with his 12 missed tackles forced as a receiver, and the fact that he averages 2.36 Yards After Contact Per Attempt, it all adds up to give Rice an Elusive Rating of 23.7. Yet he’s not even the most elusive runner in the Ravens’ backfield.
That honor goes to rookie Bernard Pierce who, despite some struggles in pass protection in a bigger role last week, has been a perfect complement to Rice this year. Forcing a total of 25 missed tackles from 115 touches on offense, Pierce’s Elusive Rating of 76.7 was bettered by just two players among running backs receiving at least 25% of their offense’s rushing attempts. Life is made even easier for both players however, with two of the league’s better blockers leading the way for them. Right guard Marshal Yanda and full back Vonta Leach have continued to dominate opposing defenders, and they’ll have their sights set on the Colts this Sunday.
Colts Wide Receiver vs. Ravens Cornerbacks
At wide receiver for the Colts, no player has impressed more than veteran Reggie Wayne, who has provided a safety blanket for rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. More than that however, he has given Luck his only reliable target and has been a solid downfield threat. Given how often the Colts have allowed Luck to aim deep, it’s hardly surprising that 390 of Wayne’s 1,355 receiving yards have come on passes aimed 20 or more yards downfield.
Where Wayne has impressed most when compared with his teammates however, is when you look at their ability to hang on to a pass. With nine drops from 115 catchable passes, he leads the team with a Drop Rate of 7.83. Both T.Y. Hilton and Donnie Avery have a drop rate of 16.67, with 10 and 12 drops respectively, even with a lower number of catchable passes thrown their way.
It seems that two things are a given with Baltimore’s Cary Williams — he will give up at least one big play per game, and he’ll make a play on a ball thrown into his coverage. Up and down all season, Williams has given up a reception of 20 or more yards in 10 of the team’s 16 games this season. The flip side to that of course is that he has recorded either an interception or has broken up a pass in all but two games.
The revolving door that was the starting spot opposite Williams has stopped with Corey Graham. Replacing the injured Jimmy Smith, who had replaced the devastating loss of Lardarius Webb earlier in the year, Graham has made the position his own and, despite Smith being healthy again, has held onto his starting spot. Improving as the season has gone on, Graham has allowed just four receptions in the past three weeks, with the longest going for 14 yards.
The Return of Ray Lewis
While it’s obvious the team will receive an emotional boost with the return of Lewis, it’s fair to question whether or not his play on the field this season makes his comeback as big of a deal as it will be made out to be. He opened the year with an impressive performance against the Cincinnati Bengals, but from then on seemed to struggle more each week, being taken advantage of in coverage and struggling to beat offensive lineman at the second level.
While his struggles were well documented, it’s worth pointing out he has missed just one tackle from 49 attempted this season and should benefit from an improved Ravens run defense that is playing better than the one he left earlier in the year. They may not be the force they were when they had Jarret Johnson and a fully fit Terrell Suggs setting the edge, but the Ravens have been better than they were at the start of the year which should see more runs channelled inside for Lewis to wrap up, as opposed to chasing ball carriers from sideline to sideline.
In his absence, Dannell Ellerbe has proven himself more than at any point in his career previously and, with Jameel McClain out for the rest of the season, he’ll partner Lewis in the team’s base defense. Most impressive about Ellerbe has been his play as a pass rusher, with 18 total pressures from 79 pass rushing snaps giving him a Pass Rushing Productivity rating of 18.7, the most among inside linebackers.
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Gordon McGuinness | Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst
Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.