Colts may try patient, short passing game


January 13, 2007|By MIKE PRESTON

The last time the Ravens encountered an offense as formidable as the Indianapolis Colts' was Nov. 30, against the Cincinnati Bengals on the road.

The Bengals often went with three receivers, and there were lots of short- and mid-range passes. But the key was the play of quarterback Carson Palmer, who was extremely patient in the Bengals' 13-7 victory.

These elements have become the standard formula for beating the Ravens, and slowing down their top-ranked defense. Only a few teams have accomplished it. The San Diego Chargers first unveiled it Oct. 1 for a half, then got too conservative in a 16-13 loss.

The Denver Broncos, Carolina Panthers and Bengals used it in victories over the Ravens, and the Colts have all the ingredients to pull it off today at M&T Bank Stadium in an AFC divisional playoff game.

It's a concern for the Ravens.

On one side, the Colts have Marvin Harrison, perhaps the best receiver in the game. On the other is Reggie Wayne, the most underrated No. 2 receiver in the NFL. The Colts have a great tight end in Dallas Clark and a solid backup in Ben Utecht. Or they could use Aaron Moorehead and John Standeford as No. 3 and No. 4 receivers.

And, of course, there is quarterback Peyton Manning. His trademark is his big arm and making big plays, but against Kansas City last week, Manning was patient, especially in the second half. He completed 30 of 38 passes for 268 yards, but averaged only 7.1 yards per attempt. He took what was available. Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said he noticed the change in Manning's game about two years ago.

"Peyton is a very patient quarterback," Lewis said. "Our thing is very simple. They're more scheme and they're more finesse. We're more in your face and aggressive, bottom line. Our thing is to not get over-aggressive, do what we do, and just force him to make mistakes. If anything I've learned, I've learned to be patient when we're playing him."

To beat the Ravens, you have to spread them out because it gives your quarterback more time to isolate receivers and read blitzes. Once that happens and the proper blocking occurs, short to intermediate passes (especially crossing routes and slants) are effective. Short completions can turn into big gainers.

Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan likes to attack instead of being attacked, but he also wants to keep everything in front of his defensive backs. He knows most teams aren't good or patient enough to sustain long drives against his defense. Nearly four weeks ago against the Bengals, Manning was superb, almost machine-like, with an array of short- to mid-range passes in the Colts' 34-16 win.

The Colts definitely have the talent and patience.

"He's not going to get sacked if he doesn't want to get sacked or risk taking a sack," Ryan said. "I believe it's important to pressure him. I heard [there are] some coordinators in the league that say, `Well, you can't get to him, so don't even try.' I have a feeling we'll try to get to him. We're going to play our game, they're going to play theirs, and hopefully, we're the better team."

The Ravens have 60 sacks, second best in the league. The Colts have given up only 15. Like most teams, the Ravens have had problems when opposing teams have had time to throw. But even when there was pressure, the Ravens have given up big plays in the secondary, mostly by cornerback Samari Rolle.

The Ravens have a shut-down cornerback in Chris McAlister, who most likely will be physical with Harrison because Harrison doesn't like to be pushed around. He hates being jammed at the line of scrimmage and backs away from physical cornerbacks.

Another intriguing matchup is Clark against linebackers Bart Scott and Adalius Thomas. Scott and Thomas are extremely athletic, but Clark is special, too.

"We'll have our hands full as linebackers and safeties, trying to stop him when he is in the slot," Thomas said of Clark. "The tight end is one of [Manning's] favorite receivers on third down, and first and second down as well. He spreads the ball around a lot, with Harrison, Wayne and Clark, and even checking down to the backs in line. ... You can't just sleep on [Manning] because he'll throw it to anybody."

Wayne might cause the most problems because he'll probably go against Rolle. Earlier this season in the Colts' 34-31 win in Denver, Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey held Harrison to five catches for 38 yards, but Wayne had 10 catches for 138 yards and three touchdowns.

The Ravens could move safety Ed Reed toward Rolle's side, but that also could leave a lot of space open in the middle of the field. Rolle has lost a step over the years but has survived because he has excellent technique. He might have a few more tricks left for Wayne, or Wayne might have some new ones for Rolle.

The Ravens faced a similar trio against the Bengals with receivers Chad Johnson, Chris Henry and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Palmer ran a no-huddle offense just like the Colts', which hinders the Ravens getting their different defensive packages onto the field.

Palmer was patient, throwing short passes in the flat, or 10- to 12-yard curl routes in front of the Ravens' cornerbacks and behind the linebackers. It was the perfect game plan against a near-perfect defense. Will it happen again? Probably.

This time, though, we'll see if the Ravens have made the proper adjustments.

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