A 3-1 record through the first quarter of the season has made a statement that the Ravens are a playoff-caliber team, but a road win against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday would scream they belong among the NFL’s elite.
Despite an offense that was ranked 29th in the NFL last season, the Ravens bring a revamped unit to Lucas Oil Stadium that’s ranked sixth in total yards and tied for seventh in points per game, which could lead to a shootout against an Indianapolis offense ranking first in total yards and averaging a league-leading 34.0 points per game. Of course, the Colts’ numbers benefited from playing two woeful teams, Tennessee and Jacksonville, in their last two games while the Ravens have only played one game away from M&T Bank Stadium so far this season.
The Baltimore secondary has faced much scrutiny this season and will face its biggest test in quarterback Andrew Luck and the NFL’s top-ranked passing game. The Ravens rank 24th in pass defense, but a stout run defense has often made opponents one-dimensional and the pass rush finally showed up in a convincing 38-10 win over Carolina last Sunday.
Sunday marks the 11th all-time meeting between the Ravens and Indianapolis in the regular season with the Colts holding a 7-3 advantage. Baltimore is winless in four regular-season trips to Indianapolis. The good news for the Ravens is they got the best of the Colts in their only meeting against Luck that came in the 2012 postseason, which also served as their only playoff win against Indianapolis in three tries.
Here’s what to expect as the Ravens try to begin a difficult stretch of four of five games on the road with a win on Sunday …
1. The Baltimore running game wins the time of possession battle as Justin Forsett is the leading rusher in an attack that goes over 125 yards on the ground again. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak always prefers establishing the run, but it will be even more critical in a game with such a prolific offense on the opposing side. Indianapolis is allowing 4.4 yards per carry, which indicates the Ravens should be able to move the ball effectively on the ground to set up play-action passes. The recently-injured Bernard Pierce will see some action unlike last week, but Forsett will still lead the Ravens in rushing yards in what will be a three-back timeshare.
2. Indianapolis uses a no-huddle attack to keep the Ravens’ pass rush on its heels and to help a very shaky offensive line. Even with a big lead, the Colts pushed the tempo against Tennessee last week, and they’ll use a similar style to keep the Baltimore front on its heels and to protect an offensive line that’s already surrendered 13 quarterback hits and 22 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s no secret that three-step drops limit any defense’s ability to get to the quarterback, but the Ravens have been especially vulnerable to this over the last couple years and a quicker tempo will make the defense too flatfooted in the second half, especially with Chris Canty unlikely to play and Terrell Suggs less than 100 percent.
3. Colts cornerback Vontae Davis and bracketed coverage finally make Steve Smith look human, but Torrey Smith catches a touchdown and posts a season-high 105 receiving yards. After collecting 429 receiving yards in four weeks, the elder Smith will finally receive consistent attention befitting a No. 1 receiver as Davis will shadow him and receive extra help whenever possible. Steve Smith will still have a presence, but it will be Torrey Smith with a dynamic performance against an Indianapolis defense ranking 21st in pass defense. The fourth-year wideout will catch a long score on an effective play-action fake that makes new starting free safety Sergio Brown — filling in for the suspended LaRon Landry — bite.
4. A secondary that’s been shaky all year finally crumbles as Luck throws for 350 yards and three touchdowns. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees stood up for the play of his pass defense this week, but the Colts have too many weapons for top cornerback Jimmy Smith to account for and no one else inspires enough confidence to slow such a passing game. Cornerback Lardarius Webb wasn’t listed on the injury report for the second straight week, but it’s impossible to have any expectations for him until he finally takes extensive snaps in live-game action. An improved pass rush against Carolina helped mask issues in coverage, but the Ravens won’t be able to do the same with Indianapolis using an up-tempo attack, which will lead to a long day for the back end of the defense.
5. Quarterback Joe Flacco has another strong afternoon, but the Baltimore offense can’t quite hang with Indianapolis in a 30-24 loss to snap a three-game winning streak. At the start of the season, I wouldn’t have given the Ravens much of a chance to win this one, but a stronger-than-expected Baltimore offense and the Colts’ less-than-impressive offensive line will make this a close one. In the same way that the Colts’ two wins have come against less-than-stellar competition, I can’t be convinced that a shaky road win over Cleveland is enough evidence that the Ravens can carry over performances on the road like what we saw against Carolina last week. Flacco will play at a high level against a very ordinary defense, but the Baltimore defense won’t force enough stops against Luck and the Colts to pull out the road upset.