1) Fast break offense: In the past two contests, the Ravens started slowly and were unable to establish an early rhythm. They can’t afford to do that again against a Broncos team that feeds off of staying close in every game. The offense will have to play aggressively and look to strike early to establish a lead. The key has to be to force Denver to play from behind; a position that the Broncos have not been in.
Moreover, in this case, the best defense could be the Baltimore offense. If the offense is able to hang a lead of 14-0 or 17-3 in the first half, the Denver offense will have to alternate their style of ball control, and look to score quickly through the air. It’s not that the Broncos aren’t capable of coming back – and obviously the Baltimore defense has been very accommodating as of late. However, the Broncos haven’t proven it this season.
This is a game in which offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has to dip into the bag of tricks he left behind last season. Against an aggressive Denver attack, he should dial up a trick play to catch the defense over-pursuing. The mindset should be to play fast and hit on a couple of big plays to set the tone for the game.
2) Check Weapon X: Safety Brian Dawkins has arguably been one of the top offseason acquisitions. For years, the former Philadelphia Eagle made huge defensive stops as a blitzer and run support defender. He has brought that same impact to the Broncos, instilling a level of toughness and attitude to its pass rush and run defense.
Dawkins has been successful because he has impeccable timing. He does a great job of disguising his movement before the snap prior to attacking the line as the ball is snapped.
It remains to be seen if Dawkins will actually play, as he missed most of the San Diego game with a hamstring injury, and has been limited in practice during the week. Still, Dawkins is an intense competitor so it would be a surprise if he missed this game.
Joe Flacco will have to account for Dawkins at all times, especially because he protects the side that cornerback Andre Goodman plays on. When Dawkins blitzes, Flacco will need to throw deep to Goodman’s side. While Goodman is a solid player, he is no Champ Bailey and will be targeted. In addition, the backs will need to do a good job of picking up Dawkins when he comes free off the edge.
3) Blindside return: The offense has lacked its equilibrium since left tackle Jared Gaither injured his neck against the New England Patriots. Since that point, the offense played inconsistently. At times they were explosive, and at other times they were unable to sustain drives. Without Gaither, Cameron called a more conservative game, stressing protection and quick drops. In addition, the power rushing attack went away when Gaither left the lineup.
Now that Gaither is slated to return, the offense should return to being a balanced outfit. Cameron can run more unbalanced formations, using Marshall Yanda as the sixth lineman. The power game has to be reintegrated to the offense, especially against a speedy, yet undersized Denver front.
In addition, in pass protection situations, the front five should be better equipped to deal with the blitz. Look for the long ball to be in play against a Denver defense that plays a lot of zero coverage.
1) Blitz and Press: Josh McDaniels’ fingerprints are all over his offense. As he did in New England, McDaniels uses a variation of spread formations to keep a defense guessing. The Broncos will often operate from a single back or empty set in third down passing situations. However, unlike the powerhouse Patriots, this Denver passing attack rarely goes deep. It is a quick-hitting, short passing game run by quarterback Kyle Orton.
In defending the Broncos, the defense will need to play aggressively. To throw off the timing of Denver’s rhythm passing attack, the corners will need to jam the receivers at the line-of-scrimmage.
To complement the press coverage, the blitz should be in play, especially when the Broncos set up in an empty formation. Against a very good Denver offensive line that consistently handles its one-on-one matchups, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison should bring six defenders – one more defender than the front five can block – from different spots and angles.
2) Control the YAC: One of the biggest problems that the defense has dealt with is minimizing big plays. The Ravens have given up 25 plays covering 20 yards or more, and a six passes of 40 yards or longer. What has been especially disturbing is how easily receivers have turned shorter pass completions of 15 or 20 yards into 40 or 50 yard gains. That is unacceptable.
Against the Broncos, the secondary will have to play with better discipline and tackling technique to prevent the pass catchers from springing big plays. In particular, the safeties must stay true to their landmarks. If they don’t, and are influenced out of position, receivers will run unfettered downfield. Moreover, if the defensive backs don’t tackle well, the Denver receivers, led by Brandon Marshall, have the ability to extend plays in the open field.
3) Defending the tight ends: What makes the Denver offense so tough to deal with is its versatility. Orton has a bevy of targets to turn to in the passing game, including two talented pass-catching tight ends. Daniel Graham controls the short area, while Tony Scheffler has the speed and athleticism to flex out and burn teams downfield.
The task of checking these two players will fall on the linebackers and the safeties. They will need to hold up in man coverage and do a better job than they did two weeks ago against Visanthe Shiancoe.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch: Elvis Dumervil versus Jared Gaither: The aforementioned Gaither will have a huge litmus test against the leading sack man in the league. Dumervil has an explosive first step, and keeps his pads low. Moreover, Dumervil has incorporated an effective spin move to his repertoire. Gaither has a long wingspan, and he will need to force the smaller rush end to run wide.