It's been an impossible question for defenses facing the Colts all season -- what do we do about Peyton Manning(notes)? If you blitz him, he puts up his best numbers (54 of 78 for 719 yards and four touchdown passes and a quarterback rating of 109.9). If you back off to cover Reggie Wayne(notes), he'll kill you with bubble screens at the line and short seam routes to Dallas Clark(notes). If you give your linebackers too much help with Clark, he'll mess you up with deep inside routes to guys like Pierre Garcon(notes) and Austin Collie(notes). And if you drop eight to deal with everyone, he'll just hand off to Joseph Addai(notes) and Donald Brown(notes). The Miami Dolphins held the ball for over 45 minutes when they played the Colts in Week 2, and Manning still torched them for 303 yards and two touchdowns.
Today, this test is in the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, whose defense is not what it used to be. Edge-rusher Terrell Suggs(notes) could miss up to a month with a knee injury suffered after Browns quarterback Brady Quinn(notes) went into him with a low block last Monday night. Nose tackle Haloti Ngata(notes) will be playing on a sprained ankle if he plays at all. And cornerbacks Fabian Washington(notes) and Domonique Foxworth(notes) have not performed as expected, struggling in man coverage and allowing 7.0 yards per passing attempt, a decidedly mediocre number. The worst thing that can happen to an injured defense is to face a quarterback as conversant with the no-huddle as Manning is -- he will take Baltimore's substitution packages out of the game and limit their ability to switch from base coverage to nickel. This is one of Manning's real gifts: because the Colts go single-back, three-wide so often, and the success of his offense is based more on execution than formation diversity, he's able to bulldoze down the field with his arsenal of calls.
For the Ravens, the best strategy might be the lesser of several evils. When the Colts narrowly beat the Texans on November 8, the Texans bracketed the outside with coverage and let Clark catch stuff over the middle with stud rookie linebacker Brian Cushing(notes) in coverage. It was a mismatch in Clark's favor, but he averaged only 8.5 yards per catch on his fourteen catches and his longest play was for 17 yards. The Ravens have the inside linebackers to stop the dink-and-dunk short, and the offense to keep the game close.