It would be totally forgivable if Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell cracked a smile when he pulled out his laser pointer in the offensive meeting room this week and aimed it at the Denver Broncos' defensive front.
After all, defensive end Elvis Dumervil is now just down the hall from him after signing with the Ravens as a free agent this offseason and outside linebacker Von Miller is suspended for Thursday night’s season opener.
But Caldwell kept a straight face -- yes, the mild-mannered coordinator does smile sometimes, believe it or not -- when asked about a Denver pass rush that will be without the Broncos’ top two sack-getters from 2012.
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“I’ve been around this league long enough to know that anybody that lines up at one of those positions in this league, they can play and they can rush the passer,” he said Monday.
OK, so who will be chasing after quarterback Joe Flacco then?
Robert Ayers, a former first-round draft pick, will replace Dumervil and his 11 sacks at right defensive end. Nate Irving is listed as the starter in place of Miller, who finished third in the NFL with 18.5 sacks last season, but former San Diego Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips will also see time at strong-side linebacker.
Those guys will have sizable cleats to fill, no doubt. Dumervil and Miller didn’t record all of Denver’s league-leading 52 sacks last season, but they got most of them.
“Those guys are great players. I’m pretty sure they’ll replace those guys with new players,” right tackle Michael Oher noted.
Left defensive end Derek Wolfe, who the Broncos can bump inside in passing situations, had six sacks as a rookie. Ayers, who hasn’t yet lived up to his first-round billing, had two as a situational pass rusher. And middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard had 5.5.
Phillips, meanwhile, had 9.5 sacks for the Chargers in 2012.
While the Ravens won’t have to worry about stopping Dumervil and Miller, they still had to go back and look at the tape from last season while prepping for Thursday night. The Broncos still have Jack Del Rio as their defensive coordinator and while there will be some tweaks the scheme is unlikely to be much different. They might have to rely more on preseason tape to get a feel for players, particularly young ones, in new roles.
“What’s blatantly obvious is that there are just different guys in there now,” Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda said. “With Von and Elvis out of there, we have to game plan for Ayers and the other guys that are going to be in there. It’s a little bit of the same team and a little bit that’s not. It’s like any team in the offseason. There are going to be changes.”
But these changes certainly benefit the Ravens, and not just because Dumervil now wears purple. The Broncos pass rush is an unknown, but we can assume it won’t be as dangerous.
Still, even though he doesn’t have to worry about those two matchup nightmares, Caldwell says we shouldn’t sleep on the Broncos.
“I think oftentimes people get lolled to sleep in this league,” Caldwell said. “You go into a game thinking that they don’t have a guy that can rush the passer? You’re kidding yourself.”