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Ravens vs. Colts matchups to watch: ILB play will be key no matter who starts at QB for Indy

This Week 3 AFC bout comes down a few key battles between specific players, units, and even coaches.

Houston Texans v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens will be back at home in Week 3 where they’ll host the Indianapolis Colts at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon. They are hefty favorites to prevail over the former Charm City franchise who are coming off their first win of the season over the Houston Texans in Week 2. However, games aren’t won on paper or decided by betting odds.

There are some pivotal matchups between individual players, units, and coaches that will go a long way in determining the outcome of this Week 3 contest.

Below are a handful of those key battles that could prove to be deciding factors.

Ravens inside linebackers vs. Colts quarterbacks

While there is currently some uncertainty about who the starting quarterback for Indianapolis will be come Sunday, whether it is first-round rookie Anthony Richardson or veteran Gardner Minshew, Baltimore’s elite off-ball linebacker tandem will need to continue to bring their ‘A’ game. If Richardson clears concussion protocol in enough time to make his third career start, it will primarily be up to both Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen to get the first-year signal caller down to the ground if scrambles out of the pocket or carries the ball on a designed run, which has been a significant part of the Colts offense thus far.

Richardson has already scored three rushing touchdowns in not even two full games worth of action. On Wednesday, Queen told reporters that it’s the inside linebackers’ responsibility to “strike a little fear in people’s hearts” and that’s exactly what they need to rattle whoever ends up lining up under center across from them.

If they can make it as hard as possible to move the ball on the ground as they have over the first two games of the season, it will make the Colts’ offense one-dimensional which plays right into the Ravens’ hands.

By forcing their opponent to abandon the run and be weary of throwing over the middle of the field, it will allow the pass rush more opportunities to generate pressures and rack up sacks. It would also give Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald more chances to deploy deceptive coverages and pressures to confuse either quarterback and force errors.

Brandon Stephens vs. Michael Pittman

The fourth-year wide receiver has more than twice as many targets (23), catches (16), and receiving yards (153) as any other Colts’ pass catcher through two games of the season. With three-time Pro Bowler Marlon Humphrey likely to miss his third straight game as he recovers from foot surgery, the mantle of being the Ravens’ No. 1 cornerback would fall upon what have been the very capable shoulders of the third-year pro.

Against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2, Stephens led the joint effort to keep two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase under 40 receiving yards and just five receptions. He did so by playing aggressive press-man coverage which would be a sound strategy and approach to guarding Pittman who is another big-bodied wideout. This will be one of the best individual battles to watch on Sunday as the two players physically matchup well with each other as well with Stephens being 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds and Pittman being 6-foot-4 and 223 pounds.

Ravens defensive front vs. Colts offensive line

The first key to forcing Indianapolis to become one-dimensional on offense will be dominating in the trenches where games are often won and lost. The Ravens have only yielded 138 combined rushing yards through their first two games as they made it tough sledding for a pair of top running backs in Pro Bowler Joe Mixon of the Bengals and Dameon Pierce in back-to-back weeks.

While the Colts don’t have a notable upper-echelon running back, they are coming off their best rushing performance to date in which they totaled 126 yards on the Texans in Week 2 and were led in rushing by Zack Moss who recorded 88 yards and touchdown. If Richardson is in the lineup, the dual threat he presents will create more favorable opportunities for his backs because it won’t allow defenders to sellout on the give when they run option plays.

Some key individual matchups to watch for when these two units lock horns will be between three-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly and nose tackles Michael Peirce and Travis Jones as well as three-time All-Pro left offensive guard Quenton Nelson and defensive tackle Justin Madubuike. On the edge, expect to see outside linebackers Jadeveon Clowney, David Ojabo, and Odafe Oweh—if he plays—give Colts tackles Braden Smith and Bernhard Raimann all they can handle.

Ravens interior offensive line vs. DeForest Buckner

After preventing elite run-stuffing nose tackle DJ Reader and the Bengals interior defensive lineman from hardly having any impact in their Week 2 win, Baltimore’s inside blockers will face another tough test in the form of the two-time Pro Bowler. Buckner is tied for the Colts’ lead in sacks with a pair through two games with one coming in each contest.

The Ravens are expected to be without second-year starting center Tyler Linderbaum as he continues to miss practice with an ankle sprain. That means the task of anchoring the middle of their offensive line will be the responsibility of veteran Sam Mustipher for the second week in a row. He was phenomenal against the Bengals and even earned the highest pass-blocking grade among all of his fellow linemen on the team this past Sunday.

Buckner will present a much stiffer challenge but he’ll have starting guards Kevin Zeitler and John Simpson on to his right and left respectively to lend a hand when needed and execute combo blocks as well as double teams. The Colts also have veteran nose tackle Grover Stewart who will be lined up over Mustipher at times as well, and while he hasn’t recorded a sack yet, the 29-year-old is coming off a 2022 season in which he logged a career-high four sacks so he’s still a threat to generate some pressure up the middle.