Colts raise deep fears for Ravens' secondary

October 13, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

INDIANAPOLIS - When Ravens senior vice president of football operations Ozzie Newsome looked at game film of the Indianapolis Colts' offense last week, he saw three- and five-step drop backs by a prolific quarterback, great play-action passes, a healthy running game and an adequate short passing game.

But it was Indianapolis' vertical game that concerned him the most. Carolina didn't have one. Neither did Denver nor Tampa Bay. Cleveland didn't have much of anything.

"They've got everything," Newsome said of the Colts. "Their offensive coordinator, Tom Moore, goes back to the days of Terry Bradshaw, John Stallworth and Lynn Swann. When we play Indianapolis, this will be our biggest defensive challenge in the secondary."

It will be interesting to see how the Colts attack the Ravens' young and inexperienced secondary, which has two starting rookie safeties. Carolina and Tampa Bay, the Ravens' first two opponents, had success with short passes. Denver and Cleveland tried the same approach, but lost as the Ravens seemed more prepared than in the two previous games.

Today, though, they go against two of the best play-callers in the league in Moore and Peyton Manning. They'll give the Ravens a lot to think about. And with Pro Bowl inside linebacker Ray Lewis out with a partially dislocated left shoulder, there might be some brain overload.

"Manning does a lot of checking at the line of scrimmage," said Ravens secondary coach Donnie Henderson. "He has that ability because he has been in that same system for three or four years. He can find out where your free safety and strong safety is, get his line in the right protection and his receivers into the right routes.

"I'm proud of the way we're hanging in there, not giving up too many vertical passes," Henderson said. "But we have to get better at playing together as a unit, and playing the routes as we see them."

A strong pass rush is crucial.

The Colts have the league's No. 11 passing offense, averaging 241.8 yards. Pro Bowl receiver Marvin Harrison leads the team in receptions with 32 and 433 yards for three touchdowns. The Colts have the perfect complement on the other side in Reggie Wayne, who is effective on the short and intermediate routes. They also have two tight ends who can run well in Marcus Pollard and Joe Dean Davenport.

They also have found what they believed to be the missing ingredient. His name is Catch One, Drop One, also known as Qadry Ismail. The former Ravens receiver is tied for second on the team with 17 catches for 186 yards and three touchdowns.

Colts president Bill Polian was the general manager of the Bills when they played in Super Bowls XXV, XXVI and XXVII. He felt the addition of Ismail was like adding receiver James Lofton to the Buffalo mix of receivers Andre Reed, Steve Tasker and running back Thurman Thomas in the late 1980s.

Ismail becomes the go-to guy if Harrison is drawing double teams on passing situations.

"And guess what, Qadry knows our players," Newsome said.

Ismail also has speed. His best route is a slant-in where the ball has to be thrown in front of him. The Ravens fear the speed.

"They've got the quick three-step drop, but they also have the five-step drop," Henderson said. "They are a vertical stretch team. One out of three times they are throwing the ball for depths of 20 to 30 yards, trying to get a big play off you."

But the Ravens also have to be careful of Manning's play-action fakes. He is one of the best. Running back Edgerrin James has rushed 103 times for 385 yards this season, and the Colts like to run him on the perimeters. But if cornerbacks or safeties come up too quickly...

"You think run, they hit the big pass down the field," Henderson said.

The Ravens gave up big plays in the preseason, but have adjusted with the bend-but-don't-break philosophy in the regular season. But the coaching staff knew that sooner or later, a team was going to challenge them downfield. At least now, they are much more prepared than they were a month ago.

Fourth-year cornerback Chris McAlister, in the final year of his contract, became too distracted with the negotiations with Lewis and outside linebacker Peter Boulware during the summer, but is now playing his best ball ever. He'll probably draw Harrison all over the field today.

Second-year cornerback Gary Baxter, who has been slowed by injuries the past two seasons, played well for the second straight game, and had seven tackles against Cleveland. Baxter will probably become the main target today.

Rookie free safety Will Demps has great natural instincts but has never faced an offense of this caliber. Rookie strong safety Ed Reed is starting to make plays, but is still lagging behind because of his training camp holdout. The X-factor in the secondary could be nickel-and-dime back James Trapp, a 10-year veteran who is playing as well as he did early last season before getting hurt.

The Ravens are ranked No. 26 in pass defense, allowing 250.5 yards. But that's misleading because they have gone to prevent defenses to start the second half of the past two games. But the secondary is going to need a strong pass rush and for Jamal Lewis to control the tempo of the game by running the ball.

"This is going to be a pretty good group," Newsome said of the secondary, "but we haven't seen anyone stretch the field like these folks."

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