1. Will the Baltimore Ravens’ offense be able to solve the Broncos’ defense?
This might be the most formidable test the Ravens’ high-scoring offense has faced this season. The undefeated Broncos are only allowing 11 points per game under former Baltimore defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. They’re also tied for second in the NFL with 21 sacks. Joe Flacco was sacked a season-high three times during the Ravens’ 33-31 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, their third loss in a row. The Broncos feature NFL sacks leader Elvis Dumervil, who leads the NFL with 10 sacks and is on pace to match Michael Strahan’s NFL single-season record of 22 1/2 sacks. Dumervil’s speed as an edge rusher and Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey’s coverage skills form a tough tandem. The Ravens need to improve their ball-control. Over the past three losses, they’ve held the ball for roughly 10 minutes less than their opponents. The Ravens are averaging 28.1 points, fifth-best in the league.
2. Will the Ravens be able to stop the big play?
Imposing wide receiver Brandon Marshall is bigger, stronger and faster than most defensive backs. The Broncos don’t tend to throw deep, which could help the Ravens. Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton has completed less than half his passes over 10 yards. To contain Marshall, the Ravens will need to do an excellent job of tackling. The Ravens have allowed 22 receptions of at least 20 yards or more, struggling against big receivers like Vincent Jackson, Chad Ochocinco and Sidney Rice.
3. Will the Ravens win the second-half battle?
The Broncos have been remarkably successful after halftime, outscoring teams by a 73-10 margin. The Ravens have outscored opponents 66-39 in the fourth quarter.
4. Will cornerback Lardarius Webb make an impact?
The Ravens have inserted him as the primary kickoff returner, and he’s now expected to see increased playing time in the nickel package. The Ravens could also use him on punt returns. The Broncos have the second-worst punt team in the NFL, allowing 14.9 yards per return.
5. Will the Ravens’ run defense get back to business?
The Ravens haven’t allowed three consecutive 100-yard rushers ever when All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis is in the lineup. After being the top-ranked run defense during the first month of the season, the Ravens have allowed 100-yard rushers each of the past two weeks. The Ravens have only given up 100 yards to a dozen running backs since 1999 with Lewis playing.
Baltimore Ravens RB Ray Rice vs. Denver Broncos LB D.J. Williams
Speed against speed. For Rice, the game is about elusiveness and quickness. For Williams, it’s about matching or approaching that mobility. Rice leads the NFL in total yards from scrimmage as an all-purpose threat. And the Broncos feature the NFL’s third-ranked run defense. The Broncos have yet to square off with a versatile back quite like Rice, though. This should be an interesting game within the game. Williams is one of the few linebackers athletic enough to stick close to Rice in the open field.
Baltimore Ravens CB Domonique Foxworth vs. Denver Broncos WR Brandon Marshall
Against his old team, Foxworth will need to be on top of his game to contain Marshall. Foxworth is more than fast enough to stick with Marshall and match his acceleration. However, he’ll be giving up at least six inches and roughly 50 pounds to the imposing wideout. Marshall is great at producing yards after the catch. He’s not only big, he’s quick and hard to corral. Foxworth will likely need occasional assistance from safeties Ed Reed and Dawan Landry in bracket coverage. Marshall is extremely tough to tackle, requiring a gang-tackle approach. The Ravens have allowed 22 receptions of at least 20 yards.
THREE DOWNS WITH …
Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice
1. On if people underestimate him because of his size: "I don’t think so, not anymore. I’ve made a few plays now, and now it’s just trying to make it a pattern and a habit. It also comes with hard work and practice, a great offensive line, being in the right place at the right time, play-calling. There are a lot of things that come with making plays in this league."
2. On how he’s playing: "I think the first six games were like a testament to my offseason. I was comfortable. It slowed down for me. From the first game to the sixth game, I’ve definitely learned a lot. I think I’ve seen it all to the point where now it’s time to just chip away and start to master the game a little more."
3. On advantage to being smaller: "After you make a few plays, I think they forget about it. I think overall, you start to develop yourself as a football player. I’ve been this size nearly my entire life, ever since I’ve been at Rutgers running between the tackles, now here doing a little bit more catching and running. I was a 2,000-yard rusher in college. Running the football and making plays was something I’ve been doing my whole life."
THREE DOWNS WITH …
Denver Broncos outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil
1. On keys to the pass rush: “It has a lot to do with the coverage and the pass rushers working together – the whole scheme of things – the way we try to do things on defense. Guys are just playing together.”
2. On Mike Nolan’s impact: "He’s done a tremendous job. It starts with coaching in the games. Mike Nolan sets aside a package so guys are not thinking as much, and guys are playing football. Coach does a great job of using the personnel and getting guys that can play to their strengths."
3. On Joe Flacco: "I think he’s a big, strong kid who is athletic. He has a really strong arm. He’s done great his first two years. So, I think we’ve got our work cut out for us. We’ve got to make sure we’re prepared because he can beat you over the top. He does a great job with checkdowns and scrambling.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.