Break It Down, Wild-Card Weekend: Jerrell Freeman vs. Vonta Leach
The Baltimore Ravens are going to run the football Sunday against the Colts. Maybe not as much as fans and experts think they should or as much as Ray Rice would like, but there is no question that the Ravens will make the ground game a big part of its plan.
And why wouldn't they?
Rice remains one of the game's elite backs and Indianapolis ranked 29th against the run this season -- 2-14 Kansas City racked up 352 yards rushing in a loss to the Colts just two weeks ago.
Indianapolis' defensive line has had a heck of a time staying healthy this season. As a result, even with Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney crashing from the outside of the Colts' 3-4 look, opposing offenses have been able to find openings on a consistent basis.
The one guy who could have a say in slowing Rice and Bernard Pierce: Indianapolis linebacker Jerrell Freeman. A relative unknown, signed in January after spending three seasons with the Saskatchewan Rough Riders, Freeman led the Colts in tackles with 145 this season.
Freeman is quick to close on the football and has the ability to work sideline-to-sideline. But when offenses have taken him out of plays, either by blocking or scheme, the Colts often have not had anyone ready in support.
In this "Break It Down," our focus is on Freeman's ability ... and how Baltimore might get its running backs past him and into the secondary ...
Freeman's best game of the season came in a 20-13 Week 12 win over Buffalo, when he recorded 16 tackles. The Colts still coughed up 135 yards on the ground (their seventh-worst number of 2012), but that number might have been much higher if not for Freeman's efforts.
On the first play in our spotlight here, Freeman buried Fred Jackson for a 3-yard loss on a counter. The Bills used fullback Corey McIntyre as a lead blocker, plus pulled guard Andy Levitre into the hole where Freeman (No. 50) was headed.
This play should have been set up for a big gain. The Bills did a great job taking care of Indianapolis' linemen, plus sealed off Freeney (No. 93) to Jackson's left. All that stood between Jackson and the secondary was Freeman, with two Bills blockers in his way.
Freeman took on Levitre, then avoided a (pretty terrible) block attempt by McIntyre. After standing up Levitre in the hole, Freeman cast him aside to drop Jackson for the loss.
Later, the Bills tried to slip C.J. Spiller out of the backfield on a screen pass. Instead, Freeman turned in arguably his best play of the game.
He kept his eyes locked on Spiller in the backfield, then matched him stride for stride in a race to the sideline -- Spiller moving to his left, Freeman to his right. By the time the speedy Spiller caught the ball, Freeman was waiting and dropped him for a 4-yard loss.
Shortening Freeman's 145-tackle season to two plays does him a bit of injustice, but those efforts against Buffalo provide a pretty good idea at why he succeeded this year -- he plays aggressively, with a nose for the football, and is able to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time.
However, if the Ravens can manage to block him or run him out of position, the possibility for some very big plays will be there. Indianapolis' defensive line will struggle to hold its own up front, and there is a big drop-off in tackles from Freeman to fellow inside linebacker Kavell Conner (145 to 54); players from the secondary ranked second, third and fourth on the Colts in tackles.
That 352-yard performance by the Chiefs against Indianapolis came, in part, because Freeman was eliminated on more than a couple plays.
Pictured below is a play on which Jamaal Charles picked up 23 yards in Freeman's direction. The Colts' linebacker found himself caught up in traffic after the snap, then lead blocker Patrick DiMarco wrapped around the corner to seal him off, leaving Charles with green grass into the secondary.
Later, Charles and the Chiefs victimized Freeman by using his aggressiveness against him. Brady Quinn handed off to Charles on a play that started headed to Freeman's left. Charles counted back the other direction, though, as DiMarco (circled) pushed back Freeney.
Freeman, meanwhile, charged hard toward Charles' initial point of attack, then could not double back past DiMarco to make a play on the football.
Seeing those types of plays should be very encouraging for the Ravens -- especially since their fullback, Vonta Leach, is substantially more potent as a blocker than DiMarco.
Remember that play above, where Freeman plugged a hole against two Buffalo blockers? While the Ravens will use pulling linemen to create similar situations, they also frequently simply entrust Leach to plow the way for their running backs.
Case in point: The 78-yard Pierce run pictured below, which was a standard inside run that left Leach one-on-one with Chase Blackburn.
Leach dominated that battle, sending Pierce clear into the secondary.
But the Ravens' offense (especially when Rice is on the field) relies on counters and cut backs to move the sticks on the ground. As Charles and the Chiefs showed, Freeman can run himself out of position on such plays, which could be deadly against Rice's against-the-grain ability.
Here, against the Redskins, Leach drives upfield between Baltimore's left tackle and tight end to block a linebacker. Washington's second inside backer then crashes in that direction, leaving Rice with a wide-open lane to his right.
That one turned into a big gain for Baltimore and is a shot to remember for Sunday -- without question, the Ravens will try to force the Colts to overpursue, while Baltimore closes off either Freeney or Mathis on the weak side.
Freeman will be key to preventing big plays in those situations. Athletically, he's more than capable of doing the job, even if a blocker or two stands in his way. However, if the Ravens can catch him leaning the wrong way, Freeman does not have a ton of extra run support flanking him. The Colts need a huge effort from their run defense Sunday, and it will start with Freeman's ability to win battles against Leach and the Ravens' scheme.