OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Find me a person who believes the Indianapolis Colts will upset the Ravens this Sunday and I’ll call them crazy — or, at least, desperate for attention.
However, you wouldn’t know it from talking to John Harbaugh, who’s 0-3 against Indianapolis since becoming the Ravens’ head man in 2008.
While most will point to the absence of Peyton Manning as the main reason why the Ravens should have few problems handing Indianapolis its 13th loss on Sunday, the head coach is fully aware of the real reason why his team has been unable to get past the Colts in previous seasons.
“That defense is very fast,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We have [never] fared well against them since we’ve been here in 2008. We’ve turned the ball over, we didn’t run the ball on them, we’ve gotten sacked, [and] we’ve had plays for negative yards. It’s been a theme against that defense, so we’ve got our work cut out for us. We understand that.”
In their three games against Indianapolis under Harbaugh — regular-season games in 2008 and 2009 as well as a postseason meeting in 2009 — the Ravens managed only 21 points and committed 11 turnovers. Meanwhile, the Baltimore defense held the Colts’ high-powered offense to a reasonable 37 points in the two games played in 2009. The anemic production is even more discouraging when you consider the 2009 Indianapolis defense finished 18th in total defense.
Of course, that was two years ago, and circumstances have changed dramatically in Indianapolis. Only four of the 11 starters from that 2009 defensive unit are still in the picture as the Colts rank 28th in total defense, 30th in rush defense, 22nd in pass defense, tied for 30th in turnover ration (minus-13), and last in scoring defense (29.8 points allowed per game).
It got so bad that Indianapolis head coach Jim Caldwell fired defensive coordinator and long-time friend Larry Coyer last week after three years with the team, citing the difficulty the 68-year-old coach had in connecting with his players. Linebackers coach Mike Murphy has assumed those duties.
But, for as bad as the Indianapolis defense has been all season, the Colts have two very dangerous weapons targeting quarterback Joe Flacco on Sunday: defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
The two have a combined 11 sacks this season and a total of 179 in their careers that span nine years together. Freeney was the Colts’ first-round pick in 2002 while Mathis was a fifth-round steal a year later. With Freeney and Mathis leading the way, the Indianapolis defense has the same principles that gave the Ravens fits in previous years, even if they haven’t translated to success in a nightmarish 2011.
“Those guys are tremendous,” said offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who views Freeney and Mathis as one of the best pass-rushing duos in NFL history. “They create problems. The speed that they play with, you know, they’re built for speed. They get numbers to the ball like all great defenses do. They’re a zone coverage — primarily — team, so everybody’s looking at the ball and they outnumber you. They don’t stay blocked.”
With Freeney and Mathis coming off opposite edges, it becomes even more critical for tackles Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher to protect Flacco. Through 12 games this season, the Ravens quarterback leads the NFL with 11 fumbles, losing six of them.
If the Colts are to have any chance of shocking the Ravens in Baltimore, turnovers will be a necessity, meaning Freeney and Mathis will be looking to continue a disturbing trend against Flacco. In his three games against Indianapolis, Flacco has failed to throw a touchdown pass while tossing six interceptions and fumbling twice (losing neither).
“Guys hit the ball,” said Flacco in reference to his fumbling concerns. “I’m doing all I can to keep two hands on the ball and not let that kind of stuff happen. They got one on me on Sunday [in Cleveland]; I was trying to make a play, and to prevent that one it might be, ‘Hey, we’re not going to convert this third down, just run it up in there for a couple yards and live to punt.’ But there’s a fine line there, and I can do a better job, and some of them are a little unfortunate.”
Of course, Flacco has grown since last playing Indianapolis in January 2010 when the Ravens fell 20-3 in the divisional playoffs. While still inconsistent in his fourth NFL season, it’s Flacco’s time to extract revenge against a Colts defense in decline.
But until the Ravens do it, the head coach’s fears will linger against a team desperately trying to avoid history and the short list of winless outfits in NFL history. The memories of their offense being dominated are still fresh in the Ravens’ minds.
“[Their defense has] a lot of pursuit,” Flacco said. “They play downhill. They react to the ball quickly, and they’ve kept us out of the end zone because of that. They’ve just been able to kind of play and look at us, read our eyes, read the ball, and they’ve done a really good job of just pursuing and really attacking the football. I think our biggest challenge is to just go in there and play with that kind of intensity and that kind of speed.”