With a formidable pair of edge rushers in Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, a dominant inside presence in Haloti Ngata and a handful of other defenders who might rush the passer depending on the situation, the Ravens appear to have what it takes to harass quarterbacks. But time won't be on their side Thursday night.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will win few footraces on a football field, but he is one of the quickest decision makers among NFL quarterbacks. For more than a decade in Indy, Manning made mediocre offensive lines look good by getting the ball out of his hands in a hurry. Now in Denver, Manning has a pretty good offensive line protecting him, especially at the two tackle spots with Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin.
Last season, Manning was sacked just 21 times. Only little brother Eli was sacked fewer times among regular NFL starting quarterbacks. His blockers no doubt played a role in that, but he helped himself by getting the ball out of his hands in 2.5 seconds or fewer on 54.1 percent of his passes, according to Pro Football Focus.
"He's a tough guy to bring down. He does a great job pre-snap," Dumervil said. "He gets the ball out, [has] a really good offensive line. I went against those guys in practice, so I know those guys are practicing hard, and I'm sure coach [John] Fox has those guys ready."
Before the snap, Manning often gets a good read on what the defense plans to throw at him, allowing him to identify weaknesses in the defense and audible to a more optimal play if needed. His understanding of defenses also allows him to get the ball to his playmakers at the right time. And if his first read isn't there, he processes his progressions like a Macbook, as former Ravens safety Bernard Pollard put it last season.
Last season, it took Manning on average 2.47 seconds to attempt a throw, giving him the fourth-quickest trigger finger in the NFL. Only Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton and Tom Brady were faster, according to Pro Football Focus. Sure, some of those passes came on designed quick-hitters like hitches and bubble screens, but Manning was decisive on most dropbacks.
"He's one of the main quarterbacks in this league that can really beat you solely on his knowledge of the game and his talent," Suggs said. "This is definitely a good challenge for us."
Manning completed 69.9 percent of his throws that were attempted in 2.5 seconds or fewer in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus, and had a NFL quarterback rating of 100.1 on such throws. He was in the top 10 among qualifying quarterbacks in both categories.
Of course, he was sacked more often when he took longer than 2.5 seconds to get the ball out, but he also did more damage as his tall outside receivers, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, had more time to get open on plays that involved play-action fakes or double moves. The Broncos use those quick passes and the running game to set up those big plays.
In their thrilling AFC divisional round win last postseason, the Ravens got pressure on Manning on just 10 of his 46 dropbacks. But Manning was sacked three times and completed just two of his seven passes on those plays for 19 yards and an interception.
The Ravens should have a better pass rush now, but getting to Manning still won't be easy. So they have to make those hits count when Manning gives them enough time to get to him.