To stop Manning, stop James

On the Ravens

December 18, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

THE RAVENS have the right approach going into tomorrow night's game against Indianapolis. Unlike the NFL, television networks and all the other major media outlets, the Ravens aren't caught up in the hoopla about Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and three possible 1,000-yard receivers.

The Ravens have to find an Edge, as in Edgerrin James, the Colts' star running back. Manning gets all the hype, and receivers Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley get all the highlight clips, but this offense revolves around James. He might be the forgotten man in Indianapolis' offense, but he is the major concern of the Ravens.

"Edgerrin James, that's probably the one thing that concerns me the most," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "I think Tony [Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy] realizes that the big reason that Peyton is on the big run that he is is because of the presence of Edgerrin. Peyton will probably tell you the same thing."

So, the Ravens at least have the right perspective. While Manning is having a super season and is closing in on Dan Marino's single-season mark of 48 touchdown passes, the key to stopping the Colts is stopping James - and that controls Manning.

There is no question Manning is a super talent, but he has a history of panicking. You hit him hard a couple of times, and he gets nervous feet. The head gets on a swivel and he'll fling the ball just to escape contact. Just go back to the tape of the first Colts-Patriots game this year. Manning will chuck and duck.

That's why the Ravens have to stop James. If they can put Manning in predictable passing situations, then they have a chance tomorrow night. If not, nighty-nite, Ravens.

Maybe goodbye, playoffs.

"If you can run the ball well," Manning said, "you can send a message [to opponents]."

Stopping the run had been a forte of the Ravens since 2000, but they've struggled this season, allowing more than 100 yards rushing to the Jets' Curtis Martin (119), the Chiefs' Priest Holmes (125) and the Patriots' Corey Dillon (123) and 98 to the Bengals' Rudi Johnson.

If James can find his groove, then it causes the defense to stack the line of scrimmage, opening up the pass. Linebackers have to freeze for a second in case James has the ball. Cornerbacks and safeties often try to look into the backfield instead of covering receivers downfield. Manning is great at play-action fakes, right up there with former quarterbacks Boomer Esiason and Steve DeBerg.

Stopping James, though, is no easy task. He leads the league in rushing with 1,395 yards, averaging 4.8 yards a carry. Some say he is the James of old, the total package of a running back before he tore an anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee six games into the 2001 season.

Here's some bad news for the Ravens. Others say he is better: bigger, stronger, faster and smarter.

"He's making a bunch of yards after he gets hit," said Colts center Jeff Saturday. "He's carrying guys in piles. He's a madman on the field right now."

Colts wide receiver coach Clyde Christensen said: "In training camp, he looked better than ever, and then after watching him in the New England game in the opener, I knew he was back to his old self. He is big and strong. For a power back, he has some shake to him. He is as good in the fourth quarter as he is in the first."

James is one who believes he is at his peak. A year after reconstructive knee surgery, James rushed for 989 yards despite being bothered by two ankle injuries, a damaged rib cartilage and a hamstring pull. He started 13 games last season and gained 1,259 yards.

But James was never at full tilt. He is now.

"When you can't move as fast as you want to move, you use another tactic," James said. "Pay attention to detail a whole lot more. Now that you're running fast and you're paying attention to detail, it's all coming together. When I look at it now, it's probably a good thing that I got hurt."

The Colts don't see it that way, but they know they have a fierce competitor in James. Before the injury, James was having so much early success that he contemplated retirement after playing six years. But now, in his sixth year, he wants to play six to 10 more, thanks to the player-friendly environment of Dungy compared with Jim Mora.

He wants his name mentioned in the same breath with Franco Harris, Tony Dorsett and Marcus Allen. James isn't as much of a pass-catching threat out of the backfield as he was in the past, but he has become a tremendous pass blocker, a major plus when taking on Ravens outside linebackers Adalius Thomas and Terrell Suggs.

But he won't be focusing on them. The Ravens' focus will be more on James than on Manning, Harrison or any other Colt tonight. He might be overlooked, but he can't be forgotten.

Next for Ravens

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

Site: RCA Dome, Indianapolis

When: Tomorrow, 8:30 p.m.

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

Line: Colts by 8

Inside: Marchibroda a Manning fan. Page 6C

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