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Ravens film study: How two rookies and a veteran helped quietly shut down the Colts

Cornerback Marcus Peters got two more turnovers. Safety Chuck Clark got his first career NFL touchdown, plus a game ball. Coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale got praise from coach John Harbaugh, who thought his play-calling Sunday was some of his best ever.

But when Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers tried to make sense of what had gone wrong in a 24-10 loss Sunday to the Ravens, it was the whole defense that pushed the folksy veteran to the brink of profanity.

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“We played one of the best defenses in the league, so to us, that is not an excuse to not get it done,” Rivers said. “I’m just saying there is a defense over there that is trying to stop us that is pretty dang good.”

And it was a defense that had finished the game without All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey (coronavirus), Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell (calf) and starting inside linebacker L.J. Fort (finger). It was a defense that had practiced without six members for the entire week because of COVID-19 protocols.

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How did the Ravens hold Indianapolis well under 300 yards until the game’s final possession? Peters and Clark helped. So did Martindale. But crucial contributions from two rookies and a longtime starter can’t be overlooked, either.

Malik Harrison

On Harrison’s first snap as a starting inside linebacker since Week 1, the Colts made the third-round draft pick look like a rookie. Indianapolis' formation and pulling left guard told Harrison, lined up over left tackle as an off-ball linebacker, that the Colts were running inside. So he crashed down, only to lose the edge. In a clever bit of misdirection, Rivers had pitched the ball out wide to running back Jonathan Taylor, who wasn’t touched until cornerback Jimmy Smith dragged him down after an 11-yard gain.

On Harrison’s first snap of the Ravens' next defensive series, Indianapolis went after him again. The Colts called for a zone run that isolated All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson against the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Harrison. This time, he looked like the second coming of C.J. Mosley. Harrison didn’t just survive the encounter; he won it, staggering Nelson, shedding him and locating running back Jordan Wilkins for his first of many takedowns.

That win, a Herculean feat for an inexperienced rookie, set the tone for a busy afternoon. In finishing with a team- and career-high 11 tackles, Harrison averaged a stop every 5.5 defensive snaps and one for every 3.8 special teams snaps. And few were empty-calorie plays.

On the play after he bested Nelson, he sorted through the trash inside on a second-down run to help outside linebacker Pernell McPhee put down Wilkins for no gain. Harrison’s third defensive tackle was probably his most important: On a 9-yard run by Taylor in the first quarter, he overcame some presnap alignment confusion to fight off a block, rally to the action, then tackle Taylor as Peters ripped the ball out. Harrison might have been the last Ravens player on the field to see Clark running the fumble back 65 yards for a touchdown.

It wasn’t a mistake-free performance. But when Harrison was around the ball, it was normally a good sign. In punt return coverage, he twice jolted Colts returner Nyheim Hines for stops, and cleaned up one missed tackle for a 2-yard loss. On defense, after his busy first quarter, he had stops on gains of just 1, 5 and 6 yards.

Justin Madubuike

The past two weeks have been a new kind of test for the Ravens' defensive line and edge rushers. In Week 8, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had an average time to throw of 2.26 seconds, the fastest in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats. The Ravens finished with just two sacks and five quarterback hits.

On Sunday, Rivers' average time to throw was tied for fourth fastest (2.48 seconds). When he looked downfield, the Ravens were up to the challenge, allowing just one completion on five attempts of 20-plus air yards. When Rivers took quick hitters behind the line of scrimmage, he was, of course, more accurate. He also made it harder for receivers to break free.

So while Campbell’s injury early Sunday might have hurt the Ravens' run defense (5.3 yards per carry allowed), it might have also been a blessing in disguise for how the team held up against screen after screen. In 24 defensive snaps, Madubuike made his biggest impact not with his technical work in the trenches but with his open-field effort.

Early in the second quarter, with the game tied at 7, the Colts cleared out the middle of the field on a screen for Taylor. When Harrison missed on a diving tackle attempt, the path ahead was promising. Inside linebacker Patrick Queen was busy on the other side of the field, along with three other Ravens defensive backs. Defensive tackle Justin Ellis was blocked out of the play, and cornerback Marcus Peters was facing the same possibility. Nelson was about to take safety DeShon Elliott’s legs out with a cut block, too.

Which meant the player with the best shot at denying a 78-yard catch-and-run score was the 6-3, 293-pound Madubuike. After getting upfield into the pocket, he made a sharp left turn, showed his short-area burst and dived just in time, grabbing Taylor by the right foot and taking him down after a 5-yard gain. How big a play was it? Right after Madubuike got up, both Elliott and Peters pointed a finger at him, as if to say, “We sure needed you there.”

Madubuike finished with a career-high five tackles, and three came when defending screens. With rookie Broderick Washington and veteran Jihad Ward inactive Sunday, the former Texas A&M standout was the Ravens' only defensive lineman under 29 years old. His athleticism and energy were hard to miss.

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Matthew Judon

As Judon suggested after a win over the Washington Football Team last month, stats aren’t the only thing worth caring about. Execution matters, too. And in a season in which Judon has just two sacks and 13 quarterback hits through eight games, he’s found other ways to contribute.

As a pass rusher, he’s tied for 24th in the NFL with 16 pressures. As a tackler, he’s cut his missed-tackle rate nearly in half, from 14.3% to 7.4%. And in passing situations, he’s dropped back into coverage at a higher rate than he did last season, a sign of the staff’s trust in his versatility.

Sometimes, though, the Ravens need Judon to just do what he did so regularly during his Pro Bowl-worthy 2019 season: Beat his blocker on the edge. Throughout the game Sunday, Judon flashed his all-around ability, finishing with a season-high seven tackles; no other Raven had more defensive stops. But he saved his best for the defense’s most important drive.

Midway through the fourth quarter, the Ravens led 21-10, but the Colts were driving, having covered 50 yards in eight plays. That’s about when Judon took over. On a first-and-10 play from the Ravens' 25-yard line, Judon shed a block from tight end Mo Alie-Cox and stuffed Wilkins' cut-back lane on a 2-yard carry. Then, on third-and-2, he beat Alie-Cox inside again and wrapped up Taylor a yard short of the first-down marker.

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On fourth-and-1, Judon blitzed off the edge on a play-action pass. Trey Burton was leaking across the field, and when McPhee realized the tight end was behind him, Burton was already several steps clear. With an on-target throw, he could’ve strolled into the end zone. But Indianapolis' blocking scheme left Judon with only one blocker to beat, and not a great one, either. He ran over Taylor as if he were a twig, then got his hand up in time to interrupt Rivers' follow-through. The pass died not far from where he threw it.

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RAVENS@PATRIOTS

Sunday, 8:20 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM

Line: Ravens by 7

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