At his statue unveiling last month, former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis reminisced about a question team owner Steve Bisciotti asked him during a phone call as the Ravens got ready for the 2012 Wild Card game against quarterback Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts.
Is a rookie quarterback going to come into Baltimore and beat us?
Lewis assured Bisciotti he had nothing to worry about and then, days later, he led a defense that frustrated Luck in a 24-9 Ravens victory.
The Ravens haven't faced Luck since, but as they prepared for Sunday's game against the Colts (2-2) at Lucas Oil Stadium, they had plenty to worry about. Luck, the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, orchestrates the NFL's top-ranked offense and has convinced many that he's on his way to becoming the league's top quarterback.
"It's always a challenge, really, with all the quarterbacks, but there are a few that [are] elite, and he's one of them," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said.
In his third season, Luck is flirting with a record-setting pace for the Colts. He currently leads the NFL in passing yards (1,305) and touchdowns (13) and is on pace to throw for 5,220 yards and 52 touchdowns.
In the Colts' blowout of the Tennessee Titans last week, Luck became the first player in NFL history to post consecutive games with at least 370 passing yards, four or more touchdown passes, a completion percentage above 70 percent and one or no interceptions. Now, he's the Ravens' problem.
"He runs the offense to a 'T,'" Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "He knows when somebody is open, and he knows how to hit that person. I feel like every time a person is open, he hits them. Everybody has to be on their game this week. Everybody has to know exactly what we're doing, and we can't let any balls get over our head."
The Ravens' defensive players spent the week raving about Luck, though such locker room dialogue is a weekly occurrence. Heading into their Week 3 game against the Cleveland Browns, the Ravens talked about Brian Hoyer, a career backup, as if he was Bernie Kosar in his prime.
However, Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs said the praise of Luck was not just bluster. Luck, Suggs said, is different than the rest.
"He's definitely emerged as one of the best in the league," Suggs said. "We're real impressed with the kid, and we don't say that about a lot of [guys]. Usually we come up here and play the political game and are like, 'Oh, this guy can make every throw,' or 'This guy is pretty good.' But this guy is actually really [expletive] good."
And the scary part, according to Luck's teammates and head coach Chuck Pagano, is that he's seemingly getting better every week.
"The stuff that he's doing now is unbelievable and it's going to be crazy, it's going to be freaky because it's going to get better," Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne said last week on his radio show in Indianapolis. "He's that kind of guy, the more and more opportunities that he has, the better that he will be. Hopefully, I'm just around when he's at the best of the best."
In 36 career regular-season starts, Luck has thrown for 9,501 yards and 59 touchdowns compared to 31 interceptions, and completed 58.4 percent of his passes. Since becoming the Colts' starter in the post-Peyton Manning era, he's led the organization to back-to-back playoff berths and a 24-12 regular season record.
Possessing a strong and accurate arm, innate smarts and instincts and superb leadership skills, Luck has all the characteristics of an elite quarterback. But what sets him apart and goes largely unappreciated, some analysts say, is his size and athleticism. Luck is 6-feet-3 and 235 pounds, yet he ran a 4.59 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2012. He also has 10 career rushing touchdowns.
"I believe that he is talented enough physically that if you said, 'We're going to move you to tight end,' I think he'd be able to do it," said ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck, whose brother, Matt, is Luck's backup with the Colts. "I don't think you can say that about a lot of quarterbacks, but he's that athletic, that strong, that fast."
He also has a number of weapons at his disposal. The Colts have a league-high seven players with 10 or more catches. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw has caught four of Luck's 13 touchdown passes. Tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener are both threats. Wayne, T.Y. Hilton and Hakeem Nicks make up a formidable receiving group.
The Colts' per-game average in points (34), net yards (444), first downs (26.8), and time of possession (35:49) all lead the league. They've also wracked up 1,027 yards of offense over the past two weeks.
"It's really sometimes not so much about stopping [Luck] — it's stopping the whole system," Pees said. "You can get too caught up in just stopping a quarterback, and then they just beat you some other way. We just have to stop their whole system. We have to do a great job across the board on defense. It's just a really good offense with a great quarterback."
So how will the Ravens, with a vulnerable secondary and an inconsistent pass rush, contain Luck and the Colts? It shapes up as a pick-your-poison dilemma.
Blitz Luck and watch him get the ball out quick or find open lanes to take off and run. Sit back in coverage and allow him to go through his progressions and exploit the best matchup.
"The main thing is that he knows how to make plays on his feet," said Ravens rookie weak-side linebacker C.J. Mosley. "You can get pressure from the outside and he can get hit or jump outside, and even on the run, he can make a great throw. For us, we know that he's going to make plays, so you have to let that play go and get ready for the next one."
Hasselbeck suggested that the Ravens could defend Luck similarly to how they play the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger. The first part of the game plan would be to stop the Colts' running game and make them one-dimensional. Then, they can focus on pressuring and hitting Luck whenever possible. And the final goal would be to not let the Colts' receivers get behind the defense for too many big plays because Luck is going to make his fair share of completions.
"I think having played against Ben and having the understanding of how you have to attack Ben a little bit differently in terms of how you rush him and how prepared you are to get him to the ground when that happens, I think that helps," Hasselbeck said. "I think if you look at [the Colts'] supporting cast, they are not going to overwhelm you. You should be able to match up favorably across the board in terms of how you're able to attack them. In that regard, it's really about just making sure you make it difficult throughout the game for Andrew."
As much as the Ravens praised Luck, that's how effusive the quarterback was about the Ravens' defense. He remembered how difficult the Ravens were to play against in that playoff game approximately 19 months ago. He called the Ravens defense "a beast of its own" and singled out several players as "game wreckers."
The 25-year-old, on the fast track to superstardom, hates talking about himself. During a conference call with the Baltimore media, the closest Luck came to boasting was when he said that the Colts' offense has found "a little bit of rhythm."
The Ravens know, however, that there is nothing understated about his game.
"They have a quarterback who is pretty much on his way to being the best in the league," Jimmy Smith said. "We have our work cut out."