Carroll County Times
Carroll County

Slowing Broncos pass rush a top priority for Ravens offense

OWINGS MILLS - Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil are far from the only playmakers on the Denver Broncos' defense.

The Broncos have one of the league's top cornerbacks in veteran Champ Bailey, a speedy and active outside linebacker in Wesley Woodyard and stout defensive linemen in Justin Bannan, Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe.

It's a group without any glaring holes. Denver allowed the second-fewest yards per game (299.0) in the NFL during the regular season, ranked third in the league against the pass and limited opponents to an AFC-low 3.6 yards per carry.

But, for the Ravens' offense to have success during Sunday's divisional-round matchup with the Broncos, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said, first and foremost, the Ravens need to find a way to neutralize the pass-rushing tandem of Miller and Dumervil.

"Defensively, it starts with their pass rush," Harbaugh said. "They just get a tremendous pass rush."

It's a pass rush, fueled by Miller and Dumervil, that's consistently created problems for opposing offensive lines throughout the course of the season.

The Broncos' 52 sacks were an AFC-high and Miller's 18.5 sacks ranked second-best in the conference.

Tormenting opposing offensive tackles with a rare combination of speed and athleticism, Miller had at least one sack in 12 of Denver's first 16 games and has 13.5 sacks in the Broncos' last nine games.

The second-year outside linebacker, the second overall pick in last year's draft, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.49 seconds at last year's NFL Scouting Combine, a faster time than that of Cincinnati Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver and fellow 2011 combine participant A.J. Green.

"Speed, power, quickness, finesse - he's got it all," Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said of Miller. "He can run past you up the field. He's got enough power to lean and drive the protector back into the quarterback. He can make you miss inside and out. He is just an unbelievable performer.

"He's got a move that he uses, his little dip move as he comes around the corner. He can get so low to the ground and pop back up, almost as if he goes underneath the arm or the hip of the offensive linemen. This guy has a little bit of everything. He's tremendous."

Added Harbaugh: "[Miller's] as fast as most backs. Von Miller is a great talent, and he's emerging as one of the top players in the league."

But Dumervil's dangerous, too.

He has 63.5 sacks in six NFL seasons, including 11 during this year's regular season. Dumervil had a Denver franchise-record 17 sacks in 2009. Miller and Dumervil each had six forced fumbles, tying them for the most in the AFC.

"These guys get after the passer," Ravens center Matt Birk said. "These two guys on the outside - Miller and Dumervil - are probably the best tandem in the league. They're two special guys. Our tackles are going to have their hands full."

The rest of the offensive line will be challenged as well, though.

Miller and Dumervil are two of seven Broncos that had multiple sacks during the regular season. Wolfe, a second-round pick in April's NFL draft, had six sacks. Woodyard had 5.5.

Denver was held without a sack for the first three-and-a-half quarters of its first meeting with Baltimore but Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was under consistent pressure, something that contributed to Flacco completing just 16 of 34 passes for 148 yards with no touchdowns and two turnovers through the first three quarters. Denver finished with three sacks and nine quarterback hits.

But the Broncos will be facing a different offensive line configuration than the one it saw in December.

Veteran Bryant McKinnie will be starting at left tackle instead of Michael Oher, Oher will be starting at right tackle and rookie Kelechi Osemele, the starter at right tackle for most of the season, will be starting at left guard, the same spots they played in Sunday's wild-card win over the Indianapolis Colts.

With Oher and Osemele as the starting tackles, pass protection had been an issue for much of the season.

Oher allowed 10 sacks during the regular season, which was tied for the most in the AFC, and Osemele yielded seven.

McKinnie, meanwhile, spent most of the season on the bench despite still being viewed as arguably the team's top pass blocker.

But with left guard Jah Reid sidelined by a toe injury, the Ravens shuffled the offensive line last week and the unit limited the Colts to just one sack and two quarterback hits.

Now, it will be saddled with the task of slowing down Denver's Miller- and Dumervil-led pass rush.

"They've got good pass rushers," McKinnie said, "so we've got to really be on point."

Reach Matt Zenitz at 410-857-7896 or Follow him on Twitter @mzenitz.