Wednesday, December 15, 2004

By Randy Mueller
ESPN Insider

The Baltimore Ravens' defense has been known for its immense pride, great enthusiasm and big heart for several years. It has the numbers, the talent and the intangibles to back up its lofty status.

When the Ravens' defense talks (and plays), other NFL teams listen and watch. A lot of eyes will be focused on Indianapolis Sunday night to see how this group handles the record-breaking efforts of Peyton Manning and Co.

I would think Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis will find some time this week to make a few points to his teammates about the significance of slowing down the Colt offensive juggernaut and avoiding becoming the trivia answer to "Who did Peyton Manning break the all-time single-season TD passing record against?"

I also think this game begs to give us some answers as to how teams may best defend the high-flying Colts in the context of the new chuck rules, etc. for the remainder of this season, including the playoffs. The Colts' receivers have been given many a free release off the line of scrimmage and have drubbed many a zone defense to date.

Ray Lewis will have his teammates even more fired up than usual this week.
Something tells me Lewis, Chris McAlister and Ed Reed won't be as passive on Sunday. This game will be equivalent to Indy's early season test against the New England Patriots' physical defense, which occurred fresh off the new rules being implemented and called to ad nauseam in the preseason. Will it be officiated the same way during the playoff push?

The numbers on both sides of the ball are staggering. As we all know, Manning is two short of tying and three short of breaking Dan Marino's single-season TD pass record. His QB rating is an eye-popping 126.3. All three Colt receivers, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley, are likely to pass the 1,000-yard mark this year and Edgerrin James is already approaching 1,400 yards rushing.

Although not as flashy, the Baltimore defense holds its own on paper. It boasts four defensive TDs this year, Reed's eight interceptions, Terrell Suggs' 9 sacks and Lewis' 123 tackles through 13 games.

As amazing as the numbers are, this game will not be about the numbers, but rather about heart and pride. What Ray Lewis-led team is not? A game like this is why the Ravens signed Deion Sanders. It's time for "Prime Time" to earn some of the million dollars Baltimore has paid him for mixed results to this point. The spotlight will be bright and the talk will be loud. This is one of those games that even the players competing would pay to see.

Can the Ravens play press coverage and take away the flow and timing of an offense that hasn't been taken out of its rhythm to date? Can they get to or pressure Manning and force him to throw early? Can they get Manning on the ground and subject him to some punishment? Can they control the line of scrimmage so that James must choose a running lane and make a cut sooner than he wants to?

These two teams may also be sending each other a message as well; after all they might just meet again in three or four weeks. The matchup poses lots of questions and very few answers.

One thing we do know? If Manning breaks the record this week, he will have earned it.

The Ravens have given up only 10 touchdown passes all year. If Manning doesn't break the record, it couldn't be considered a surprise. It would also tell me that the Ravens' defense has recovered from a couple hiccups earlier in the season and is peaking at the right time.

All future Colt opponents will be focused on the World Wide Leader Sunday night hoping for some answers as to how slow down the Colts that the previous 13 weeks have not revealed. It should be fun.