The Return Of Football: Ravens vs Broncos

Baltimore Ravens What to Look For
Elvis Dumervil

While it may not seem like it, the NFL season will start in two days with the Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens heading to Denver to face the Broncos in a rematch of one of the best games, if not the best game, from last season where the Ravens stunned the heavily favored Broncos 38-35 in double overtime.

1.  New Players

By now, everyone knows the story of the Ravens offseason.  They lost many key players on both offense and defense and have since replaced them, but nobody knows how they will play in-game for the Ravens.  We have seen them in limited preseason time but considering the Detroit Lions team that went 0-16 in the regular season went 4-0 in the preseason, it wouldn’t be smart to judge anyone off of their preseason play.

The most roster turnover is on defense where there will be seven different starters from the starting lineup from Super Bowl XLVII.  On the defensive line, Chris Canty comes in and will start at defensive end and the 6’7″ Canty is a great fit for the position.  There will be three new starters at linebackers where Elvis Dumervil comes in on the outside and Daryl Smith and Josh Bynes will play on the inside.  The secondary has three new starters as well in cornerback Lardarius Webb who is coming of a torn ACL and Michael Huff and James Ihedigbo at safety.

Out of these seven, the main player to watch is Dumervil as he will be going up against his former team.  The split between these two was very publicized and became known as “Faxgate.”  Paired with Terrell Suggs, Dumervil should make an impact with his pass rushing ability.

On the offense, everyone is looking at the receiver position and who can replace the production of Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta.  Brandon Stokley will contribute as a slot receiver but someone else is needed as well.  The candidates are Deonte Thompson, Aaron Mellette, and Marlon Brown.  Thompson is injured and probably won’t play, which leaves Mellette and Brown.  Brown showed the best connection with Flacco in preseason, but that needs to be shown in a real game.  After this game, we should get a better look at who else will be a key contributor in the passing game.

This game is going to be won or lost depending on how these new players play.

2.  Offensive Line

During the Ravens playoff run last season, the most important thing for their success was the offensive line.  The line was moved around for the playoffs and played the best it had all season.  Quarterback Joe Flacco had plenty of time to find receivers behind the revamped line and running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce found plenty of running lanes.

Elvis Dumervil

Courtesy of ICON SMI

This play needs to continue into this season for Flacco and the Ravens to be successful.  There has been one change on the offensive line as Gino Gradkowski takes over for the retired Matt Birk at center.  While there might be some growing pains, the transition from Birk to Gradkowski should go over well.

Last year when the Ravens faced off against the Broncos, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil were playing for the Broncos and giving offensive lines fits.  Now, they have neither as Miller is suspended for the first six games of the season and Dumervil is now a Raven.  In two games against the Ravens last year, Miller and Dumervil combined for 2 sacks and 7 QB hits.

Replacing that pass rush will be Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers who combined for 11.5 sacks compared to the 29.5 sacks from Miller and Dumervil.  Those 29.5 sacks accounted for 56.7 percent of the Broncos 52 sacks from last season.

Offensive tackles Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher will have a much easier time trying to block Phillips and Ayers instead of Miller and Dumervil.  This will allow Flacco more time to find open receivers and he showed during last year’s playoffs that he can be a dangerous quarterback when he has time to throw.

3.  Stopping the Pass

The Broncos passing game has the potential to be lights outs.  With future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, you don’t need to have a top receiving corps, but the Broncos do with Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Wes Welker.  This combination can give defensive coordinators nightmares.

These three receivers form arguably the best receiving corps in the league.  Thomas is the deep threat, Decker is a sure-handed receiver, and Welker is the perfect slot receiver.  Welker sprained his ankle in the preseason but is expected to be fine for the season opener.

Stopping the passing game will be a tough assignment.  In order to do this, the Ravens defense will have to confuse Manning at the line-of-scrimmage with different looks, trying to make him think the defense is doing one thing when they are doing another.  If the defense can do this, they will have won half of the battle.  However, Manning is one of the best at diagnosing defenses and audibling to a play that works good against the defense.  Former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was great at changing the defense’s calls when Manning changed his, but Lewis has retired, and Daryl Smith now has his job.

The Ravens secondary will have their hands full no matter what.  Lardarius Webb, the Ravens’ number one cornerback, missed both match-ups with the Broncos last year due to a torn ACL.  Corey Graham intercepted Manning twice in the playoffs, including one that was returned for a touchdown.  The nickel cornerback will be Jimmy Smith who has been up-and-down throughout his NFL career.  Forth cornerback Chykie Brown will see some time in sub-packages as well.  When this happens, Webb and Graham will move inside to cover the slot receivers and Smith and Brown will take the outside ones.  Webb has shutdown Welker from the slot before, when Welker was with the New England Patriots.

With all the new players on the Ravens’ defense, communication is going to be a huge factor.  They haven’t played a full game together yet so nobody knows how well they will communicate.  Manning is a big test for this due to his audibles.  The defense will have to be communicating before every play to make sure everyone is doing what they are supposed to.  The lack of playing time together for the defense could become an issue.

The main reason that the stopping the pass will be important is that the Broncos running game is anything but stable right now.  Ronnie Hillman is having fumbling issues and wasn’t very effective in spot time last season, Montee Ball is a rookie and it is unknown what he will offer, and Knowshon Moreno keeps getting relegated to the backups but then becomes a starter after the other backs fail.

With the running game being uncertain, the Broncos will rely on their passing game to try and win the game.  If the Ravens can slow this passing game down, they can probably stop the Broncos entire offense.

4.  Special Teams

Often overlooked, special teams played a big role in both the Ravens’ 2012 season and the playoff matchup against the Broncos.

After not giving up a return touchdown at all in the regular season, the Ravens’ coverage teams suffered a meltdown in the divisional playoffs against the Broncos where they allowed Trindon Holliday to return a punt 90 yards for a touchdown and a kickoff 104 yards for a touchdown.

Broncos kicker Matt Prater missed a 52-yard field goal in the second quarter.  This miss turned out to be crucial as the Ravens used the good field position they received from the miss to drive for a quick touchdown right before the half ended.

Ravens kicker Justin Tucker won the game with a 47-yard field goal in the second overtime.  Just in this one game, special teams had a big impact.

For the Ravens regular season, special teams were key throughout.  Returner Jacoby Jones had two kickoff returns and one punt return for a touchdown in the regular season.  Adding to that, he returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the Super Bowl.  Without Jones’ returns, the Ravens season would have looked very different.  The punt return for touchdown was crucial as it was the only touchdown that the Ravens scored in a win over the Steelers.

As a rookie kicker, Tucker more than exceeded expectations as he went 30-of-33 for the season in the regular season and 4-of-4 in the postseason.

In this game, special teams will be important for a few reasons.  If either team gets a return touchdown, they will probably end up winning as this should be a very close game.  Since it should be a close game, field position will be huge, so punting will be important in setting up field position for each team.  Lastly, a field goal very well could decide this game, like before, so both kickers will need to be on top of their game.

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