By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun
8:34 PM EDT, September 4, 2013
RAVENS PASSING GAME: So much has changed since Joe Flacco went into Denver last January for an AFC divisional-round playoff game and engineered a 38-35 upset. He now has a Super Bowl ring and the richest contract in team history, but after a sluggish preseason, he faces questions about whether he can pick up where he left off. Without Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta, Flacco threw two touchdown passes and four interceptions in the preseason. Torrey Smith (Maryland), now the team's No.1 option, had two touchdowns in their last meeting, finishing with 98 yards.
BRONCOS PASSING GAME: Peyton Manning threw for 4,659 yards with 37 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last season in his return from neck surgery. The Broncos already had two game-breaking wide receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, but they gave Manning a new toy with the signing of longtime New England Patriot Wes Welker. He'll work in the slot, giving the Broncos arguably the best receiving corps in the league. The Broncos allowed just 21 sacks last year, the second-fewest in the NFL.
RAVENS RUNNING GAME: The opener will be a good gauge of how the Ravens balance carries between running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Rice rushed for 1,143 yards last season and will remain one of the focal points of the offense, but the Ravens clearly want to get Pierce even more involved. How often both play at the same time and how many snaps Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach gets bear watching. The Ravens finished 11th in the NFL in rushing last year with 118.8 yards per game.
BRONCOS RUNNING GAME: After finishing 16th in the league in rushing yards per game (114.5), the Broncos used a second-round draft pick on Wisconsin running back Montee Ball. Ball figures to get goal-line opportunities, but the Broncos seem intent on going with a three-running-back attack that includes Ronnie Hillman and 2009 first-round pick Knowshon Moreno. Hillman, who caused some problems for the Ravens last year, is atop the depth chart, but his two preseason fumbles caused some concern in Denver.
RAVENS RUSH DEFENSE: After allowing 122.8 rushing yards per game last season, the Ravens made upgrading the defensive line their top priority. Results this preseason were good, but the Ravens go into tonight's game without starting defensive tackle Arthur Jones (illness) and reserve Brandon Williams (toe). For the first time in 17 seasons, they'll enter a season without Ray Lewis. Bigger up front and faster at linebacker, they have all the makings of a top run defense but still must go out and prove it.
BRONCOS RUSH DEFENSE: The Broncos had the third-stingiest run defense in the league last year, holding opponents to 91.1 yards per game. They also allowed an NFL-low 4.58 yards per play and had the league's best third-down defense. Interior linemen Terrance Knighton and Kevin Vickerson plug up the middle, allowing middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard to roam free. Woodyard was the only player in the NFL last year with at least 100 tackles, five sacks and three interceptions.
RAVENS PASS DEFENSE: This group has been entirely remade since the Ravens flustered Peyton Manning in January. The Ravens have former Bronco Elvis Dumervil rushing from the outside and Chris Canty from the inside. Lardarius Webb will play his first regular-season game since last October, and the two starting safeties are now Michael Huff and James Ihedigbo. The cornerbacks struggled in the preseason and will be tested by Manning. The Ravens had 37 sacks last year, a number they expect to grow significantly.
BRONCOS PASS DEFENSE: What was one of the Broncos' biggest strengths last season — they tied for the NFL lead with 52 sacks — is now one of their biggest question marks. Von Miller (18.5 sacks) is serving a six-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, and Dumervil (11 sacks) is now with the Ravens. Robert Ayers will rush from one side, and the Ravens likely will see Derek Wolfe and Shaun Phillips on the other. Star cornerback Champ Bailey is out, too.
RAVENS SPECIAL TEAMS: Minus two big breakdowns in Denver in January, the Ravens were outstanding on special teams throughout last season, and they expect that to continue with the return of punter Sam Koch, kicker Justin Tucker and returner Jacoby Jones. The only thing unclear is what would happen if Jones were unavailable. Deonte Thompson is hurt, Asa Jackson is suspended, David Reed was traded and LaQuan Williams (Maryland), Bobby Rainey and Tandon Doss were all waived.
BRONCOS SPECIAL TEAMS: Diminutive return man Trindon Holliday has the Ravens' full attention after returning four punts or kickoffs for touchdowns last year, including two in their meeting last January. Expect the Ravens to keep the ball away from him whenever possible. Kicker Matt Prater converted on 26 of 32 field goals last season and led the league with 65 touchbacks, which could go a long way in neutralizing the Ravens' Jones. Britton Colquitt is considered one of the better punters in the league.
RAVENS INTANGIBLES: As an organization, the Ravens worked hard to move beyond February's Super Bowl victory. By all accounts, they succeeded. Even through an uneven preseason, Harbaugh's team appeared to be as motivated as ever. The stage won't bother them, as they've come to relish going into tough venues as the underdog. They've also won their past five season openers under Harbaugh, so there's no reason to think they'll be unprepared.
BRONCOS INTANGIBLES: Coach John Fox shouldn't need to say too much to motivate his team. The Broncos have had nearly eight months to stew over their double-overtime loss to the Ravens. The environment at Sports Authority Field should be especially hostile. Since 1996, the Broncos have the league's best record in the first month of the season. They are also 12-1 in their past 13 home openers and have won 11 consecutive regular-season games.
PREDICTION: The 2013 Ravens will have bigger and better days ahead, but the deck is stacked against them in this matchup. The Broncos could have one of the best offenses in the league, their defense has more than enough talent to make up for the loss of Miller, they’ll be playing in front of their home crowd and they have nearly eight months of stored anger and motivation toward the Ravens. Even if the Ravens play well – and that's the expectation here – there is a lot for them to overcome. A slow start on offense and a couple of Manning touchdown passes will be the difference.
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