8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Ravens -7, Over/Under: 46
Week Five comes to it’s conclusion tonight in Charm City, as the struggling Indianapolis Colts return to their former hometown to face the surging Baltimore Ravens in what is sure to be an unwelcoming homecoming on Monday Night Football. The Colts (1-3, 3rd in AFC South) are returning to Baltimore, and no, they’re not arriving in Mayflower trucks, though they are looking to build some momentum for themselves in an effort to rebound from a disappointing 0-3 start. Needless to say, this is NOT what the faithful in Indy had in mind for 2021, as the roster has been beset by injuries to a number of key positions, while the transition to yet another new Starting Quarterback hasn’t gone a seamlessly as expected. With that said, they should be used to turnover at the game’s most important position, for that has been a constant during the Frank Reich era; since the Head Coach was hired in 2018, he’s had a different starting signal-caller each season, including Andrew Luck’s swan song followed Jacoby Brissett to Philip Rivers’ final expedition, to a reunion with Carson Wentz (63.8%, 920 YDS, 561 YDS, 5.61 NY/A, 5 TD, 1 INT, 48.9 QBR), whom Reich coached during his formative years in Philadelphia from 2016 to 2017. If there was ever a player who was in more desperate need of change of scenery it was Wentz, whose final campaign in the City of Brotherly Love was neither brotherly or lovely; the former Pro-Bowler regressed noticeably in 2020, while clashing with teammates and the coaching staff before eventually being benched with four games to play despite the Eagles still being very much alive in what was the most uninspiring division race in the history of the National Football League. And it’s with that said that he would find a new home with Reich in Indianapolis, with the hopes that the 29-year old could regain the form that he enjoyed in 2017 when he was the frontrunner for MVP before tearing his ACL. Unfortunately, his lengthy injury history has continued to plague him; Wentz missed nearly all of the preseason after undergoing surgery to repair a broken bone in his foot, and has been reportedly playing on TWO sprained ankles for weeks now, undoubtedly limiting his mobility within the pocket. At least he’s playing though, for the Colts have already lost ten different players to Injured Reserve, a group that includes (All-Pro Guard) Quenton Nelson and (longtime Receiver) T.Y. Hilton among others. As a result, the Offense has struggled to find much of a rhythm, averaging 20.8 points (21st Overall) on 348.3 total yards (21st Overall), including 236.3 yards through the air (25th Overall) on just 5.6 net yards per attempt (26th Overall), all the while struggling greatly on both third down (37.3%) and in the red zone (40.0%) where they rank twenty-third and thirtieth respectively. What Reich would really love to do is run the football better, which for all intents and purposes should be the foundation of the attack. In winning four of their final five games en route to qualifying for the Playoffs last year, Indianapolis averaged a robust 169.6 rushing yards thanks in large part to the emergence of (Rookie Tailback) Jonathan Taylor (58 CAR, 274 YDS, 4.7 Y/A, 1 TD), who accounted for 130.2 yards of that figure. Nelson’s absence has clearly been a factor in this slow start, while Wentz’s health hasn’t helped either as opposing Defenses have been frothing at the mouth to swarm the Backfield. However, there may be reason for optimism as the Colts earned their first victory of the season last weekend, a convincing 27-17 performance at the Miami Dolphins in which both sides of the football played to their potential. After the hosts struck first with a field goal late in the First Quarter, the visiting side ran off twenty unanswered points to take a convincing 20-3 lead early in the final stanza which was all they would need in the end. The Offense accounted for a workmanlike 349 total yards on twenty first downs, dominating time of possession (37:09) on the strength of 139 rushing yards on thirty-three attempts, with the aforementioned Taylor putting together his first 100-yard game of the campaign with 103 yards and a score on just sixteen carries. This was also Wentz’s best showing as a Colt, completing 24-of-32 passes for 228 yards and a pair of touchdowns, spreading the wealth to ten different receivers, chief among them (Tight End) Mo Allie-Cox (6 REC, 74 YDS, 12.3 Y/R, 2 TD) who hauled in both scores. The Defense was also dominant, relegating the Dolphins to a scant 203 total yards on thirteen first downs, thirty-five rushing yards on six carries, and 3-of-11 on third down along with a pair of takeaways. (Linebackers) Kemoko Turay (3 TKL, 2 TFL, 2 QBH, 2.0 SK) and Darius Leonard (25 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 FF, 2 FR, 1 INT, 3 PD) made plays all over the gridiron, with the former logging a pair of sacks and the latter leading the team with eight tackles and a recovered fumble. Reich will be hoping for a similar performance against the Ravens’ vaunted rushing attack (more on that shortly) in what is sure to be a hostile environment tonight. Simply put, there is NO love lost between the city of Baltimore and their former football team, which left town literally in the middle of one 1984 night, abruptly ending a successful 31-year tenure that includes two NFL Championships (1958, 1959) and a Super Bowl Title in 1970, featuring a host of Hall of Fame talents. Furthermore, they have faced the Ravens in Baltimore on nine occasions (including the Playoffs), amassing a 4-5 record including three consecutive losses at M&T Bank Stadium, though tonight’s trip will be their first under the stewardship of Reich, who will also be enjoying a homecoming of sorts, for the 59-year old is a graduate of the University of Maryland, where he quarterbacked the Terrapins from 1982-1984.
Meanwhile, after coming up short in their Season Opener, the Ravens (3-1, T-1st in AFC North) are building up quite the head of steam in winning each of their last three contests and are ready to welcome the hated Colts into M&T Bank Stadium tonight. Since their inaugural campaign in 1996, Baltimore has faced Indianapolis on sixteen occasions (including thrice in the Playoffs), and after enduring an eight-game losing streak between 2002 and 2009 (thanks, Peyton Manning) they have thus beaten their city’s former residents in four of their last five meetings. The most recent is also the most relevant for it is the only encounter in which (2019 MVP) Lamar Jackson (60.5%, 1,077 YDS, 7.57 NY/A, 4 TD, 3 INT, 58.6 QBR) has participated in, a 24-10 victory for the young Quarterback’s side at Lucas Oil Stadium. In many ways, this particular win read like many that have occurred with Jackson at the helm; after tying the game early with a 65-yard fumble return for a score, the visiting Ravens would go on to own the affair by moving the chains on the ground, rushing for 110 yards and a pair of touchdowns on thirty-eight carries, affording them command of time of possession in the process (33:26). Jackson would complete an efficient 19-of-23 passes for 170 yards, while rushing for another fifty-eight yards and a score on thirteen attempts, while (Tailbacks) J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards accounted for another fifty-three yards and a touchdown on a combined twenty-three attempts. With that said, one of the major storylines in Baltimore during the early stages of this season has been their injuries in the Backfield, where both Dobbins and Edwards will miss the entirety of 2021 with various injuries. (Head Coach) John Harbaugh and (General Manager) Eric DeCosta went bargain shopping at the veteran rushers bin, adding a trifecta of free agents in the form of Latavius Murray (44 CAR, 151 YDS, 3.4 Y/A, 3 TD), Devonta Freeman (6 CAR, 41 YDS, 6.8 Y/A, 0 TD), and Le’Veon Bell (4 CAR, 11 YDS, 2.8 Y/A, 0 TD). Though it’s been quite some time since any of these guys were productive, the key here is the creativity of the scheme under the guiding hand of (Offensive Coordinator) Greg Roman, and of course Jackson, who is easily the most dynamic rushing threat at that position in NFL history. Of course, the 24-year old is the ONLY Quarterback to ever rush for 1,000+ yards twice, let alone in back-to-back seasons, with the threat that he poses creating opportunities for whomever lines up beside him. Though he’s coming off a season-low twenty-eight rushing yards in last weekend’s 23-7 thumping of the formerly-unbeaten Denver Broncos, he’s nonetheless remained a nightmare for opposing defenses, averaging 69.8 yards on the ground on a very healthy 6.6 yards per carry. And speaking of rushing, the Ravens made some history in last weekend’s outing, albeit in controversial fashion, for in compiling 102 yards on thirty carries against a staunch Broncos’ Defense, Harbaugh’s charges tied an NFL record with FORTY-THREE consecutive games churning out 100 or more yards via the run, joining the Pittsburgh Steelers, who set the mark back in 1974-1977. However, the controversy in it all came when after initially taking a knee to end the game, Harbaugh was notified that they were only a few yards short of keeping the streak going, causing the 59-year old to send his troops back out there for one more running play, which Jackson executed for five yards. This led to quite the war of words between Harbaugh and (Denver Head Coach) Vic Fangio, who openly lambasted the decision from the sideline and into his press conference. Unapologetic, Harbaugh undoubtedly relishes the opportunity to break the record at home, on primetime, and against a bitter rival. In fact, after hitting the road for three of their first four games of the schedule, the Ravens won’t have to travel away from M&T Bank Stadium for roughly a month, with their next road venture taking place on November 11th. They’ll be happy to be under the bright lights of primetime as well, which has been a comfortable setting of late; Baltimore is a staggering 16-2 at home under Harbaugh on primetime, with their 36-35 comeback victory over the Kansas City Chiefs being the most recent example. Furthermore, if they are to break this record tonight, you would be hard-pressed to find another franchise that has been more synonymous with pounding the rock; in an era in which everyone is enamored with slinging the football up and down the gridiron, this team is a throwback in every sense of the term, leading the league in rushing attempts, yards, and yards per attempt in each of the last two seasons, while currently ranking fifth (31.8), third (164.5), and third (5.2) in those respective categories in 2021. Lastly, more so than any other team, rushing the football translates into success for Baltimore, who have put together a stellar 34-9 (.790) record during that stretch, and from a macro standpoint have gone a remarkable 110-40 (.733) under the coach when they’ve eclipsed that rushing threshold.