INDIANAPOLIS – One of the premier matchups on NFL Sunday involves a pair of 5-2 teams at Lucas Oil Stadium. That would be the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens.
And that convergence of playoff-caliber teams involves an intriguing subplot. That would be a Colts’ run defense that has been one of the league’s stingiest since the arrival of coordinator Matt Eberflus in 2018 squaring off against a Ravens’ ground attack that has been the NFL’s most prolific since Lamar Jackson was added to the mix that same year.
It’s Big on Big, and the stats since the start of ’18 back it up. Consider:
- The Colts rank 4th in the NFL over that 39-game span in fewest rushing yards per game (96.3) and 3rd in yards per attempt (3.9). This year, they’re No. 2 in each.
- At its current pace (79.8), the run defense would be the stingiest in the Indy era. The Nos. 3 and 4 run defenses were in Eberflus’ first two seasons: 97.9 last year and 101.9 in ’18. Currently atop the list is the ’95 bunch (91.1).
- The Ravens have generated 179.2 yards per game and 5.1 per attempt, both league highs. The second-best run team during that stretch: Seattle (144.6).
With Jackson rushing for 1,206 yards in his MVP season – an NFL record for a QB – the Ravens rushed for a league-record 3,296 yards last season.
- Eberflus’ defense has allowed just one running back to crack the 100-yard barrier: Tennessee’s Derrick Henry (149) in week 13 last season. Prior to that, it had built a streak of 29 consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard back.
Twice this season, the defense has absolutely stoned backs. Detroit had 29 yards on 13 attempts last week and needed a 10-yard scramble by Matthew Stafford and an 11-yard end around by Jamal Agnew to get there. Earlier, the Chicago Bears needed 16 attempts to hit 28 yards.
- Five different Ravens have combined for 18 100-yard outings. Jackson has seven, Gus Edwards five, Mark Ingram II four and J.K. Dobbins and Kenneth Dixon one each. Jackson’s seven rank 2nd in NFL history for a quarterback. And remember, he’s midway through his third season.
Baltimore cemented its prowess as a run-game juggernaut in last Sunday’s 28-24 loss to Pittsburgh. It rushed 47 times for 265 yards.
- The Colts have allowed just two runs of at least 20 yards this season, second-fewest in the league.
- The Ravens have gotten loose for a league-high 15 runs of least 20 yards, including three that have chewed up at least 40.
This ought to be good.
The Ravens can dominate with their multi-headed running attack: Jackson, Edwards, Dobbins and Ingram, although Ingram is iffy with an ankle injury. Jackson works out of the shotgun, is a master of the read-option. He’s often in a one-back set, but usually keeps a defense on its toes by having motion in the backfield.
“It’s like you’re playing assignment football when you’re dealing with really the best running attack in football,’’ Eberflus said. “They have all the varying runs. The staff there does a really good job of running the pro-style runs with some different wrinkles in it.’’
Being assignment-sound isn’t a good idea, it’s a must. One of Eberflus’ defensive pillars is “11 versus 1,’’ which means every able body swarms to the ball carrier.
That’s especially true with Jackson, whether it’s trying to get him on the ground in pass-rush situations or corralling him on designed runs or scrambles.
“The main thing about him is second-effort rushes,’’ said emerging defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis. “Guys, they may miss one time but other guys making up with their second efforts. The DBs giving the extra tick on the clock for us to get there.
“He’s a tremendous athlete, but we have great athletes here, too. It’s just getting that second effort, everything hustling to the ball.’’
At times, Eberflus likely will use his elite defender to shadow Baltimore’s elite QB. That would be using All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard as a “spy,’’ or another player with the requisite speed.
“You can do that a lot of different ways,’’ Eberflus said. “You can do that with just rushing four guys and gaming that up to keep (Jackson) in there. You can rush with five guys and they give the appearance of five guys and keep the guy in there and rush with more than that.
“You’re going to have to utilize all those things this week.’’
Justin Houston remains the Colts’ most proven pass-rush threat, and also is the voice of experience when understanding the threat posed by Jackson.
In 2018, his final season with Kansas City, Houston’s Chiefs faced the Ravens in Jackson’s rookie season. In early December, the Chiefs posted a 27-24 victory despite Jackson passing for 147 yards and two TDs and rushing 14 times for 67 yards. Houston got to Jackson for 1 of the Chief’s 2 sacks.
Houston’s advice to his defensive teammates: don’t play scared.
“Respect him, but don’t fear him,’’ he said. “So don’t let that slow him down in your rush. I know a lot of guys get timid. They kind of slow down on their rush and don’t be as aggressive at the line. You just have to play your game.
“It’s disciplined football. Everybody has an assignment and everybody has to do their job every play . . . they’re just waiting for you to make a mistake because they’re pretty much not going to switch up too much. They’re just going to capitalize off your mistakes.’’
Coach Frank Reich said one of the talking points in a defensive meeting earlier this week was balancing speed and discipline.
“The way we talk about it is two sides of the same coin,’’ he said. “Lamar is a great player, and he’s going to make his plays, but our goal is to minimize those the best we can. One way to do that is with speed and discipline.
“It has to be a combination of both.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.