Ravens need right moves in chess match vs. Manning

Against Colts QB, defense plans to be aggressive

December 16, 2004|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

A few weeks ago, Dan Marino cried out to defensive coordinators on national television to blitz Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning more often.

Consider the wish granted.

As Manning pursues Marino's single-season touchdown record, the Ravens will initiate a hunt of their own Sunday night, chasing down the NFL's most dangerous quarterback any way possible.

Whether it's sending an extra linebacker, safety or cornerback - or simply giving the appearance of a rush - the game plan is to attack the pocket passer rather than react. It's a strategy that shows great confidence in the Ravens' ability to force turnovers and little fear in giving up the big play.

"Your mind-set has to be aggressive," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "The overriding thing I see is a lot of teams playing [as] mistake-free as they possibly can. That gives you a respectable loss. We're not shooting for that. We don't even play defense that way. We're going to go into it playing to win."

Few teams have been so bold against Manning, the front-runner for NFL Most Valuable Player who has thrown for 46 touchdowns, two shy of Marino's 20-year-old mark.

Of the Colts' 427 passing plays, Manning has faced 115 blitzes (rushing six or more defenders), a remarkably low 27 percent of the time.

It's a hit-or-miss proposition to pressure Manning. Blitzing him has led to two fumbles and four sacks. When he has eluded it, he has completed 70 percent of his throws with a quarterback rating of 140.

Most coordinators have chosen to play it safe - rush four linemen and drop seven defenders in coverage - ever since Manning used his quick release to rip blitz-happy Green Bay for 393 yards passing and five touchdowns in Week 3.

That hardly discourages the Ravens.

"If you play with a limited mindset, you lose," said Nolan, whose defense has caused 29 takeaways (17 interceptions and 12 fumbles) and scored six touchdowns. "If you sit back and think `bend don't break,' the `don't break' is not going to happen."

The key is not to rely on a heavy blitz, but an unpredictable one.

The teams that have held Indianapolis to two of its lowest scoring outputs this season - New England and Houston - both play 3-4 defenses like the Ravens and disguise their pressure.

On Sunday, the Texans held the Colts without a touchdown for the final three quarters because they were effective in getting to Manning. The corner blitz caught them by surprise, as Dunta Robinson recorded two sacks.

The Ravens have never hesitated to send anyone, and four defensive backs have combined for 8 1/2 sacks.

So, when Manning stands behind center and begins his elaborate audible routine, the Ravens want him to think they can come from any direction.

"This is the ultimate chess match," cornerback Chris McAlister said. "You can never let him see what you're running as a defense. You have to change it up. He will look at you, point at you and change the route. It's a matter of deceiving him and showing him something that's false."

Manning, though, can keep defenses off balance with his play-action fakes to Edgerrin James, the often overlooked NFL rushing leader.

The threat of James running can freeze safeties, allowing Manning to go over the top to Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley (all of whom have at least 58 catches and nine touchdowns).

"I think the biggest thing is stopping the run first," linebacker Adalius Thomas said. "Play action is a key to their vertical passing attack."

Shutting down big passing plays has been the Ravens' forte.

The reason is they blitz frequently without putting themselves at risk. They will bring five players about half the time but rarely send more than that, which allows them to keep at least six defenders in coverage. The difficulty is figuring out which player is blitzing.

As a result, they have given up just one passing touchdown of more than 20 yards, the fewest in the NFL.

"It's a very aggressive defense, really able to create a lot of turnovers," Manning said. "It's always just a real challenge mentally and physically when you play against the Ravens defense."

Being physical on the Colts' receivers could help the Ravens get a rush on Manning. McAlister and Baxter are both big cornerbacks who could disrupt Indianapolis' passing attack by jamming the smaller Colts at the line of scrimmage.

"If we can slow their timing routes down and get our line a second or two, they can get to Peyton Manning," Baxter said. "It's how the New England Patriots played them in the AFC championship game. It's going to be very key that we do that."

It's a matter of Manning looking to break a record and the Ravens looking to break his rhythm.

"We have a huge amount of respect for him," Ravens coach Brian Billick said, "but we certainly don't fear him."

For the defense

The Ravens face a major challenge in trying to stop the Colts, the NFL's top passing attack. A look at where the Ravens' pass defense ranks in the league:

NFL

Category No. rank

QB rating 65.6 1st

Three-and-outs 53 2nd

Pass yds. per game 184.9 7th

Passing TDs 10 1st

Sacks 36 t-7th

Interceptions 17 4th

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Ravens (8-5) vs. Indianapolis Colts (10-3)

Site: RCA Dome, Indianapolis

When: Sunday, 8:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13, ESPN/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Colts by 8

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