When the Ravens and Broncos kick off the regular season Thursday night, count on seeing defenders gasping for thin mountain air as the two quarterbacks race their offenses to the line of scrimmage to run play after play.
Peyton Manning has long been a maestro of the no-huddle offense, orchestrating high-scoring offenses for 14 years in Indianapolis and another in Denver.
The Ravens just made the no-huddle a staple of their offense last season, but with quarterback Joe Flacco having played in a high-paced attack in college, they are already one of the NFL's fastest.
The Ravens don't use their no-huddle offense exclusively, but when they did pick up the pace last season, the results were often favorable. While not at Manning's level yet, Flacco and the offense have been working since last season to become faster and more efficient. The up-tempo offense meshes with the attacking mentality of John Harbaugh.
"The no-huddle offense is a great tool, a great strategy," the Ravens' coach said. "You obviously have to be in great shape as a football team and your opponent has to be in great shape to keep up with you. But you have to execute quicker, you have to think quicker. You have to be able to operate in that kind of environment, but you force your opponent to do the same. It fits our philosophy."
At an average of 27.54 seconds of game clock per offensive play, the Ravens had the third-fastest offensive pace in the NFL last season, according to Football Outsiders. The Broncos were second at 27.45 seconds. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, who ran more offensive plays than any other team, led the NFL at 24.53 seconds.
"[The no-huddle] helps keep teams in a rhythm," Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "Rhythm is extremely important in a ball game. You try not to break your rhythm if you can, so sometimes pushing the pace of play lets you dictate a little bit more [of what goes] on in the 40 seconds between those snaps and maybe give you an advantage here or there."
When the Ravens forgo a huddle, defenses are unable to substitute. They can get an advantage if they catch the defense with a run-stuffing personnel group on the field against a speedy three-receiver group or if the Ravens have their jumbo package repeatedly lining up against an undersized, overmatched nickel defense.
"It makes it a little more difficult for [defenses] to give you a variety of different looks if you're pushing the pace fast enough," Caldwell added. "They have to be somewhat bland."
Plus, the Ravens have drafted versatile players such as dual-threat running back Ray Rice, tight end Ed Dickson, and fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who all can line up as wide receivers or in the slot. Their positional flexibility allows the Ravens to use a variety of formations in their no-huddle attack as they quickly but methodically drive downfield.
"Conditioning is a factor, particularly when you get some of those drives that end up being 13-play or 14-play drives," Caldwell said. "It can certainly take a toll on you."
When Caldwell was in Indianapolis as Manning's quarterback coach and then head coach, the Colts became a heavy user of the no-huddle offense. After plays, Manning would race to the line and bark out commands, some legitimate and some for show. If the defense tried to substitute, he would have his center snap the ball and take the free shot downfield or draw a penalty. It was just another aspect that made that Colts' offense one of the most prolific in NFL history.
Up-tempo offenses were more prevalent in the college ranks and none were faster than Chip Kelly's Oregon Ducks, who ran theirs at breakneck speeds. His stated goal was to run as many plays in a game as possible, a philosophy that Brady's Patriots have adopted. Now that Kelly is coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, they are looking to establish new speed limits in the NFL.
Of course, it takes execution for the aggressive up-tempo approach to work. As Dickson put it, the Ravens need that initial first down to "get the train rolling." Three quick plays followed by a punt won't put points on the scoreboard, but it will put additional stress on your defense.
"Tempo is a common word," Manning said on a conference call. "But just because you're running plays fast, if you're not blocking anybody or not running good routes or not accurate with the football, I don't think it really matters. It's still an execution game."
That precision comes through repetition after repetition in practice. The Ravens used their no-huddle at times during training camp, loud rap music bumping over the sound system as Flacco and his offensive teammates hustled to the line after every play.
Now that they are practicing behind closed doors, they are picking up the tempo even more, particularly with Manning and the Broncos looming at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Operating at a faster pace this week will benefit them on both sides of the ball Thursday night.
Improving communication is also critical, said tight end Dallas Clark, who along with slot receiver Brandon Stokley spent years with Manning and Caldwell in Indianapolis. One of the reasons the Patriots were so efficient before the Ravens beat them in the playoffs was that they relied on one-word play calls to line up faster and catch opponents on their heels.
"The less having to be said is best," Clark said. The Ravens use some one-word calls, too, he said.
Still, more than anything, offenses must have a savvy signal-caller to make the no-huddle hum.
"It starts with the quarterback," Clark said. "You can't do it with a quarterback that doesn't understand the big picture and [can't] just rattle off plays and get everyone in the right situation."
Flacco might be most comfortable when the Ravens go no-huddle, something he did frequently at Delaware. Even then, Flacco liked controlling the pace of the game and making calls at the line of scrimmage.
"I love the no-huddle," Flacco once said. "I like to go up there and run a play, run a play, run a play."
Early in his pro career, his ability to do that was often limited to two-minute drills. But over the years, as use of the no-huddle became more prevalent, the Ravens implemented it to tailor their offense to Flacco's strengths and preferences.
Today, with Flacco in his sixth year and the offense emboldened by the Super Bowl run, the Ravens "can go as fast as we want to go," said Dickson, who has a need for speed after playing for Kelly in his early years at Oregon.
The Ravens pick their spots when it comes to use of the no-huddle. But if Dickson and some of his teammates had their way, they would put the pedal to the metal at all times.