For a half at least this looked like it was going to be a classic season opener befitting the start of another much anticipated NFL season. Then Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos made it a record-setting night that brought the defending champion Baltimore Ravens crashing back down to reality with a shuddering thud.
From the moment Dallas Clark dropped what should have been a touchdown to end the first half, the Ravens’ momentum went south and the Broncos rolled over a defense that, particularly in coverage, did not gel in the opening game of the season. As a defense, the Ravens let up two 100-yard receivers and a franchise record seven touchdowns allowed in a single game.
With much of the focus on Von Miller’s absence for the Broncos it was Peyton Manning who highlighted why he is his own defense’s best friend during the regular season. Driving forward a clinical offensive performance, Denver got the scoreboard in their favor and forced the Ravens to chase the game — allowing an under-strength Denver defense to attack relentlessly. For the Ravens this was a sobering taste of the reality of being Super Bowl champions as the Broncos sounded a thundering warning shot to the rest of the AFC as the new season got underway.
Baltimore – Three Performances of Note
Rocky Start for the Ravens’ New Defensive Era
After such a bright preseason, the Ravens’ new look defense was reminded (if they didn’t already know) that it wouldn’t be smooth sailing as they look to rebuild and reload. While there were some strong displays up front, only one player, returning starter Lardarius Webb (+1.3), covered himself in any glory on the back end. As my colleague Sam Monson drew up in his Analysis Notebook, the Ravens were caught out by sublime play design and execution for the opening touchdown but that excuse can’t be used for the totality of last night’s display. In reality, the Ravens were simply second best to the Broncos’ receivers and consistently so.
After making the pivotal play in the playoff victory last year Corey Graham was found wanting (-4.6 coverage) up against Wes Welker and Demaryius Thomas while Michael Huff struggled in his Ravens’ debut. Caught in a bind for the first Julius Thomas touchdown, he subsequently gave up two further catches including Thomas’ second score (sharing culpability with James Ihedigbo who whiffed on Thomas short of the goal-line), not to mention getting lost and giving Demaryius Thomas a straight line run to the end zone for the Broncos’ final six-pointer. This mentions nothing of Jimmy Smith (-1.6 coverage) who surrendered 114 yards on six catches including getting beat deep by Andre Caldwell for a 28-yard score.
Taken Out of Their Gameplan on Offense
This game really offered the Ravens a perfect storm of things to go wrong on offense. Put into chase mode early in the third quarter, the running game was set to one side and the Ravens never really looked like getting back into the game — even with Danny Trevathan’s help. Baltimore didn’t get the big plays deep and with the running game largely shutdown before it was abandoned, that put the onus on a short passing game that is still anything but efficient. Joe Flacco was 20-of-31 on short throws including two interceptions, including the (should have been) pick-six to Trevathan on a 4th-and-1 play that should never have been put in the air.
Though he made his own mistakes, Flacco wasn’t helped by a receiving corps that put five passes on the ground, including Clark’s momentum changer at the end of the second quarter. The only offensive player who really stood out was Marshal Yanda who was the only offensive lineman to grade positively as a run blocker and only surrendered one hurry in 68 plays in pass protection. The Ravens thrived on the big play in Denver last season, with that taken out of the equation (Flacco 6-of-17 on passes aimed 10+ yards downfield) they looked short of answers in the rematch.
Positives up Front
There’s plenty of football still to be played this season and Baltimore did have some positives to draw from on defense last night, so I’ll finish the three performances of note for the Ravens with those. While the coverage fell to pieces in the second half, their run defense was strong led by Haloti Ngata (+2.1 run defense) and Terrell Suggs (+1.8 run defense), limiting the Broncos to 3.2 yards per carry when they handed the ball to either Knowshon Moreno, Montee Ball or Ronnie Hillman. Suggs led the Ravens’ defense with six stops including his sack and also notched a further two hits and two hurries which gave him the team lead from the returning Elvis Dumervil (+0.9) and new signing Chris Canty (+2.3 pass rush). The poor display in coverage completely, and rightly, overshadows these positives in the grand scheme of things, but it’s not all bad news for the Ravens on defense after last night. It just seems like it is.
Denver – Three Performances of Note
Peyton Manning’s New Triplets
The offensive grade page for the Denver Broncos is, unsurprisingly, filled with plenty of green and the top three lines all feature significant positive grades for Peyton Manning’s (+4.7) three favorite receivers last night. Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas each topped +2.5 and Wes Welker got his Broncos career underway with a +1.1 receiving grade, his overall grade dented by his false start penalty. The tale of the tape for Welker was his customary display against the Ravens, ruthlessly efficient against everyone except Lardarius Webb. Two targets to Webb’s coverage yielded no receptions while Welker’s nine other targets (six against Corey Graham) produced nine receptions and two touchdowns. Add in the devastating threat of the Thomases who combined for 271 yards on 10 catches and you have a terrifying receiving corps. The odd man out in Manning’s receiving corps was Eric Decker. Like Julius, he got seven targets but rather than parlaying that into a big night Decker put three passes on the ground, fumbled another and got called for offensive pass interference earning a -5.5 overall grade that got his season, on an individual level, off to an extremely poor start.
New Defensive Stars Shine
The Broncos had two shining stars on defense last night with Bronco debutants Shaun Phillips (+5.7) and Duke Ihenacho (+3.0) getting off to stellar starts to their Denver careers. Starting at strong safety Ihenacho made an immediate impression with three stops in the first half and was around the football all night both in run defense and pass coverage. A fourth-quarter missed tackle on Brandon Stokley proved to be one of the few blots on his copybook all night long. His five defensive stops were bested only by middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard who registered eight stops including one sack.
Meanwhile, the Broncos highest-graded defender was Phillips, the former Charger, who provided the pressure that many (including myself) questioned whether it would come in the absence of Von Miller. Yes, he got a favorable match up against rookie right tackle Ricky Wagner, but to his credit he took full advantage and did more than just rush the passer adding two stops against the run early in the second quarter and even dropping to cover Ray Rice on a wheel route, which he did so well that he forced Joe Flacco to throw the ball out of bounds. More performances like this in the first six weeks and the Broncos will start to build a real defensive identity without Miller, which will make his return all the more intimidating for the rest of the AFC.
Shining in Champ’s Absence
The Broncos’ disastrous coverage display in the playoffs last season was all the more bizarre for how well they had played in coverage during the regular season. On the evidence of last night’s game it looks like that regular season form will re-emerge rather than the playoffs sparking a new trend. Picking up where he left off last season Chris Harris was again excellent in coverage (+2.1) allowing fewer than 50% of the passes his way to be completed and nabbing an interception. New signing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie reminded us all of the promise he had at the start of his career — targeted only once, the former Eagle and Cardinal didn’t allow that pass to be completed and had himself a quiet night aside from that.
From a coverage perspective, the linebackers, aside from a cameo by Paris Lenon (two targets, two completions, 40 yards), only added to that with Nate Irving corralling Ray Rice for a combined 4 yards on two targets, and Danny Trevathan giving up four completions on nine targets for 22 yards. Now if he’d only finished the play across the goal-line before dropping the ball we might be talking about his stellar display in more glowing terms rather than the media focus on his boneheaded moment that prevented the Broncos from putting this game away sooner.
– Peyton Manning went deep six times in this game, his receivers hauled in three of those passes and each one was good for a touchdown.
– Of the 14 kickoffs in this game every single one of them was a touchback and only three of them didn’t clear the back line of the end zone.
– In his Broncos debut, Phillips set his highest-ever single game grade in the now six seasons we have been grading games here at PFF. His previous best was a +4.7 grade against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts back in Week 12 of the 2008 season.
PFF Game Ball
As impressive as Phillips’ display was I’m slightly tempered by who he did it against, so the first game ball of the regular season goes to Duke Ihenacho. Showing a real nose for the football and bringing force when he finds it, the second-year safety is going to be fun to watch this season.
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