3TFO: Ravens @ Broncos, Week 1
The regular season kicks-off on Thursday Night with a re-match of a double-overtime playoff classic. Ben Stockwell takes a look at the battles that could decide the outcome.
3TFO: Ravens @ Broncos, Week 1
Football is back!
And now it counts.
As excited as we were to bring you our in-depth analysis of preseason football for the first time, we’re even more excited, as every NFL fan is, to see the return of the regular season. It feels like the excitement, intrigue and intensity around this game has been building since it became clear the season opener couldn’t be held in Baltimore. The added spice of a rematch of a playoff classic only serves to promise a spectacle from the opening kickoff of the 2013 NFL season.
On that night back in January the Baltimore Ravens prevailed en route to their Super Bowl charge, while the Denver Broncos fell from the playoffs at their first post-season hurdle. Since then much has changed and much has stayed the same around these two teams. One defender has crossed sides ahead of the season opener, one of his former teammates is missing due to a league suspension, and then there’s the small matter of two future hall of famers departing the scene from the Super Bowl champions.
Yet, at its core, this game will still be about Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco. It will still be about the Baltimore Ravens, this time without Ray Lewis playing his chess game against Manning, trying to rattle the former Colts quarterback with pressure and disguised coverages. It will be about the Broncos trying to right the wrongs — as they will perceive them — of that night and not letting Flacco get the big plays deep down the field as the Ravens attempt to pick up where they left off seven months ago.
No Miller, No Dumervil, No Pressure?
Even with both Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil patrolling the edge of their defense in last year’s playoff defeat, the Broncos struggled to generate much in the way of pressure on Flacco. As a team they earned a -4.3 pass rush grade with only Miller (1 Sk, 1Ht, 5 Hu) shining individually. On 36 drop-backs the Broncos pressured Flacco on only 10, dropping him for a sack only once, and allowing him the luxury to hold for (on average) three seconds before releasing a pass.
Ahead of this game the Broncos’ pass rush has only worsened, on paper, with the loss of Dumervil to Baltimore and Miller to a six-game suspension to start the season. Trying to fill that void will be the likes of Robert Ayers, Derek Wolfe and Shaun Phillips, none of whom have a recent track record to suggest that they will replace Dumervil’s pressure, let alone come close to filling the hole Miller’s absence leaves.
With the Ravens’ offensive line looking reasonably solid in preseason it is hard to see where the Broncos are going to generate pressure from in this game. If Flacco has time to hold the ball and allow plays to develop down the field (something the Ravens didn’t show much of with the first-team in preseason), then it’s hard to see this Broncos’ secondary holding up any better than they did in January, particularly with the absence of Champ Bailey. That night Flacco went 4 of 6 for 185 yards and three touchdowns on passes aimed 20+ yards downfield. The Broncos need their pass rush to step up as much as their defensive backs to avoid a repeat performance.
Winning On the Ground
One similarity between these two teams coming out of preseason is how well they are playing the run, and how difficult this could make life for the opposing running games. Of the Ravens’ starting defense, as projected by our own Neil Hornsby on Tuesday, not one player graded negatively against the run in preseason, and to add to that Terrence Cody‘s play (+6.6 run defense) suggested he could be about to put in the best season of his pro career.
Not wanting to be outdone by the defending champions, the Broncos also had a strong preseason of run defense from their starters, although Wolfe (-1.5) prevents a clean sweep in that regard. Back in January both teams showed commitment to the run, but Denver gained an average of only 3 yards per carry, while Baltimore managed just 4. It will be a tough ask for the starting offensive lines to hit the ground running and maintain some semblance of balance for their offenses, but each have positive signs from the preseason and quality blockers to suggest some success could be had.
For the Ravens, Marshal Yanda played only 20 preseason snaps but he made them count as a run blocker with some eye-catching blocks from his first snap. Meanwhile for the Broncos, new signing Louis Vasquez (+4.7 run block) had a strong preseason at a right guard spot where Chris Kuper had a disastrous game (-7.4 overall) in the playoff defeat. The focus may well be on the quarterbacks and the passing games for the season opener, but the ground game that can have the most joy against strong looking run D’s will give their quarterback the best chance of winning their own duel by bringing a balanced threat to the field.
Controlling the Middle of the Field
It’s hard to imagine a defense managing to improve after they lose two future Hall-of-Fame players, but indications from preseason suggest the Ravens may have managed to do just that. Preseason can be misleading, though, and this fresh Ravens defense will get a stern test off the bat against Manning and his new slot receiver Wes Welker, particularly in the secondary. Up front things looked extremely good for the Ravens with their defensive line swallowing the run and Daryl Smith (+6.7) doing everything well behind them. However, the back end holds the biggest questions.
Returning starter Lardarius Webb played only 17 preseason snaps and the Ravens don’t appear to be blessed with quality depth at corner, especially against the predominantly three-wide Denver offense. The Ravens won against Manning last season between the numbers (Manning was 11 of 20 with two interceptions there) while a week later Welker was perfect between the numbers (7 of 7, 116 yards), though the Ravens did get an interception on a pass targeted for Aaron Hernandez. How this crucial battleground plays out could swing this game. Will the Ravens pressure, and in particular their ability to turn pressure into hits and sacks, maintain their control between the numbers? …or will the addition of Welker to an already stacked receiving corps swing the balance of power towards Denver?
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.