Singles, Doubles, and Triples
It was the long ball that sank Denver’s Super Bowl hopes and dreams nearly eight months ago. The Ravens still have the speed demons to drown the Broncos yet again. However, chances are defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio won’t use as much single-high coverage as he did a year ago—particularly with a gimpy Champ Bailey, who may not even play (game time decision). Expect the two-deep zone to be in play early and often to negate Baltimore’s vertical passing game.
The pressure will be on the Ravens’ new group of inside targets to make plays in the middle of the field to soften up the zone coverage. By hitting shorter inside routes early, the team may be able to expand their deep middle routes (posts and digs) to get the safeties to commit and create space downfield.
However, the Ravens will need to be precise and complete the shorter routes to establish more one-on-one opportunities for Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones.
Playing Keep Away
Speaking of completing short passes, the Baltimore receivers need to bring their hands to Denver because incompletions will ruin the offense’s ability to sustain drives.
The other crucial element to the ball control attack is the ground game. The Ravens weren’t productive running the ball through the preseason, with run blocking being spotty at best.
However, Denver has their own concerns with last year’s edge rushers, Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, missing in action. While the two linebackers are known for their pass-rushing prowess, their ability to set the edge will also be missed.
While the Broncos may be stouter up the middle with the addition of free agent Terrance Knighton, the edges should be tested early and often. If the Ravens are able to have success, they may be able to spring a few big runs and keep the clock churning.
Smith the Motion Man
Smith will clearly have the bull’s eye on him all game, especially when he lines up out wide. However, offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell can get the third-year receiver loose in other ways and that includes having him more involved on inside crossers and slants—something we saw in the preseason.
For instance, Smith displayed his game-breaking ability on a slant pattern he took to the house against Atlanta during the preseason. Getting Smith the ball on the run could enable the offense to hit on big plays without having to rely exclusively on completing deep patterns.
During the first half against St. Louis in their third preseason game, the Broncos ran an astonishing 40 plays on offense, with Peyton Manning hurling 34 passes. This is the pace that the Broncos are capable of operating at all game. With Manning at the helm, completely comfortable, and a fleet of receivers at his disposal, it’s clear that Denver wants to run teams off the field, especially in September.
Suffice it to say the Ravens’ defensive speed demons need to be ready. The onus will be on defensive coordinator Dean Pees to have the right package on the field to combat Manning. That would likely mean getting back to the 2-4-5 look that he employed against Denver in the postseason.
The key question is who will play the WILL spot?
Rookie Arthur Brown operated as the team’s nickel backer on third downs alongside of Darryl Smith in the preseason. It would make sense—given his incredible speed and pass coverage instincts—that he stays on the field, as substitution opportunities will be few and far between. However, Brown is still wet behind the ears, and that could be a detriment against Manning’s quick count that punishes any hesitation or mistakes.
With Welker switching jerseys between New England and Denver, the theme remains the same for Baltimore’s defense: They must find a way to neutralize him without safety help, especially given the outside help required against Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. Welker’s routes are typically in the 10-to-15 yard zone and he lives in the middle. He is crafty enough to find the soft spots and his short area quickness is still world-class. In comparison to what Manning had to work with last year, Welker will put a huge strain on defenses and act as his go-to zone buster.
The likelihood is that Welker will be checked by either cornerback Corey Graham or Lardarius Webb. Graham may very well be more prepared for the challenge, but all reports indicate Webb is “ready to go.” Either way, the corner checking Welker will need to be physical at the line, and the backers patrolling the middle need to make the former Patriot pay in the open field.
Overall, the Ravens did a decent job of containing the Denver receivers in the open field back in January. However, there were a couple of crucial miscues. In particular, there were two plays—a 32-yard run-after-catch by Decker and a 17-yard screen play to Thomas—that led to touchdown scores.
Both Thomas and Decker are tough to bring down in the open field and they are heavily involved on slip screens and quick-hitting pass plays. With Welker also in the equation, the Baltimore defenders will have a major tackling test on their hands.
The unit’s open-field tackling has to be much better than it was during the regular season to limit the Broncos’ back-breaking yards-after-catch (YAC).
ONE-ON-ONE BATTLE OF THE WEEK
Terrell Suggs versus Ryan Clady
In a game filled with tantalizing matchups, the battle between Suggs and Clady takes center stage. Suggs was still working himself back into shape when he last faced Clady. However, he had his best game of the season with two sacks and a quarterback hit. In that matchup, Suggs relied more on his power game to beat Clady. Now, the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year should have his legs back. Clady is a technician with terrific footwork and he’ll make Suggs earn any sacks or pressures he gets.